New Bucs punter Dirk Johnson will also assume the role of holding for placekicks
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have found a proven and experienced leg to help them weather the absence of injured punter Josh Bidwell, for whatever length of time that proves to be.
On Thursday, the Buccaneers signed veteran punter Dirk Johnson, who most recently kicked for the Super Bowl-bound Arizona Cardinals in 2008. To make room on the 80-man training camp roster, the Buccaneers waived/injured third-year defensive tackle Greg Peterson. If Peterson clears waivers, he will revert to the Buccaneers' injured reserve list on Friday.
Johnson first entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent with the Seattle Seahawks in 1998 and first kicked in a regular-season game with the New Orleans Saints in 2002. The bulk of his professional experience came with the Philadelphia Eagles from 2003-06, as he appeared in 55 games and punted 268 times during that four-year span.
Johnson also filled in for the Chicago Bears for one game in 2007 before landing the Cardinals' job in 2008. He handled Arizona's punting duties for 12 games last fall before being released in November.
In all, Johnson has recorded 320 NFL punts for 13,356 yards, compiling a gross average of 41.7 yards and a net average of 35.9 yards. He has never had a punt blocked and has a fine career inside-the-20/touchback ratio of 94/24. Johnson's top gross average for a full season of work was 42.6 in 2006 and his best net was 37.4 in 2004.
Since the end of the 2008 campaign, Johnson has also spent time on the offseason rosters in Washington and Pittsburgh. The Steelers released the veteran punter on June 12. Early in his career, Johnson even played a season in the now-defunct NFL Europa. He is accustomed to becoming acclimated to a new set of teammates and quickly getting back into the swing of game action. That's good, because the Buccaneers will ask him to handle their punting duties in their preseason opener in just two days.
"You get used to that, especially as a punter," said Johnson, who attended the Buccaneers' Thursday morning walk-through but did not kick. "You have long times between plays. Hopefully in 12 years my body has learned something and I can snap back into it. I'm in shape. If I wasn't in shape, I wouldn't be here. I'm ready."
Johnson worked out for the Buccaneers on Thursday morning, prior to practice. The team was forced to try out two punters after learning that Bidwell would be unavailable for this weekend's game in Tennessee due to a hip injury. Bidwell's absence could extend beyond that; the team is still gathering information on the severity of the injury and the actions that must be taken. Johnson and the Buccaneers have yet to discuss the implications of his signing beyond this weekend.
"We haven't even gotten that far," he said. "I'm just here, I'm going to jump into the routine and go from there."
Johnson will also assume Bidwell's responsibilities as the holder on placekicks, a job with which he is comfortable.
Back to Back to Back
Head Coach Raheem Morris slowed down the tempo at practice on Thursday, turning the morning workout into a shortened walk-through in helmets but no shoulder pads. Morris has kept camp practices running briskly and rarely given the players breaks from their pads, but with the preseason opener just around the corner, he wanted to shift focus to the next evaluation period.
About a dozen players are currently resting minor injuries, and Morris wanted to make sure the rest of his crew would be healthy for the weekend.
"We're getting close to the game," he said. "I want to try to get these guys to the game so they can play. We want to be able to evaluate them in their best form, at their best shape, so I thought it was a smart decision this morning to go with a little walk-through."
One of the groups that looks like it will be at, or at least near, full strength is the running back corps. Second-year scatback Clifton Smith returned to the practice field on Thursday – albeit at the slowed-down pace of the day – and new Buc Derrick Ward recovered from his slight hamstring injury days ago. The Bucs have five tailbacks on the roster – Smith, Ward, Earnest Graham, Cadillac Williams and Kareem Huggins – and they are all likely to see action on Saturday in Tennessee.
That means a judicious divvying-up of the handoffs, but that's something the running backs probably need to get used to. It seems very likely that – at the very least – Ward, Graham and Williams will be a part of this year's rushing attack, while Smith is also a good bet to get some spot carries and even the rookie Huggins has impressed.
Fortunately, those backs seem to have no problem taking turns. They have become a close-knit crew that hopes to succeed as a group rather than as individuals. Morris thinks some of that has to do with the quintet's modest roots. Ward was a seventh-round pick and Graham, Smith and Huggins all came into the league as undrafted free agents. Williams was a high first-round pick, but his return from two severe knee injuries means he has climbed a similar mountain.
"You are talking about guys who have dug themselves out of being the 53rd man on the roster," gushed Morris. "Who is Earnest Graham? What round did he get drafted in? Exactly. What round did Derrick Ward get drafted in? Exactly. Cadillac is one of the few guys that has been drafted high. You are talking about a great character guy, a guy who bonds with his teammates; you're talking about a guy who can get them all going. What round was Clifton Smith drafted in? That's right, that's what I thought. You're talking about a bunch of guys that love playing football, that hustle, that cheer for each other. They are bonding together in that room, in the pit, in the tunnel, whatever you want to call it. They come out and they just start swinging at people. That's great."
NFL YET Kids Get Trained at Camp
Though a brief rain shower following Thursday morning's practice might have deterred a few lingering autograph seekers, the light drizzle only seemed to refresh a lucky group of children participating in the Buccaneers' daily post-practice activities.
Eighty children from the NFL Youth Education Towns (YETs) of Tampa Bay watched the morning session before participating in some football drills of their own. They were taking part in the Gatorade Junior Training Camp, a free grassroots program that emphasizes exercise and positive choices for kids in a safe and fun environment.
"I think it's a unique opportunity for the NFL Youth Education Town children," said Lee Owens, program manager for the NFL YETs of Tampa Bay. "These opportunities don't present themselves very often. The NFL Youth Education Town services primarily at-risk kids, so these opportunities are not just unique, but probably once-in-a-lifetime."
By the conclusion of the Bucs' 19-day camp, more than 20 youth organizations will participate in the Junior Training Camp program, though the YET Centers of Tampa Bay have a particularly close relationship with their local NFL team. Recently, the Glazer Family Foundation donated $150,000 toward the YETs of Tampa Bay to fund the recently-completed Glazer Family Football Field at Mort Park, continuing its commitment to promoting physical fitness and healthy living by developing local educational and recreational facilities.
Along with participating in the on-field drills, Thursday's group was greeted by numerous Buccaneer players at the conclusion of practice.
"I believe that exposure is virtually everything, and I think sharing the same field with professional football players helps a lot of time knowing that it's not a dream, that it's actually possible," said Owens. "Walking the same lines… Jermaine Phillips and some of the other players did come over and sign autographs. That kind of close proximity allows the kids to feel that it's an actual option and not just a dream."
The NFL YET initiative is aimed at positively impacting youth in at-risk neighborhoods in Super Bowl host cities. Tampa Bay is home to two YETs – one each in Jackson Heights and Mort Park – that serve as community education and recreation centers and provide a lasting legacy of each Super Bowl game. To learn more about the NFL YET initiative, visit NFLYetTampa.org.