TE Lovett Purnell (#80, blocking #78) has drawn praise for his early work in the Bucs' new offense
Hopefully, you'll forgive us the cliché when we refer to Lovett Purnell as 'versatile'.
It's a classic and complimentary adjective for a tight end, referring to a player that can block or receive equally well. That description fits Purnell, but it's not what we're talking about here.
Nor are we referring to his name, which seems to read just as well backward as it does forward. As a matter of fact, it often is. He is used to being called Purnell Lovett, even by the media at times, and it doesn't bother him a bit.
And, though it's fitting, we are also not making a reference to the rather un-football-like sport pursued by the 6-3, 250-pound Purnell during his leisure time: tennis.
No, we call Purnell versatile because he has played for a pair of head coaches, Bill Parcells and Tony Dungy, who seem drastically different in style, and loved every minute of it.
Admittedly, Purnell has yet to suit up in a game for Dungy, but he has already experienced enough in mini-camps and voluntary workouts to know that he fits in well in the environment established by the Buccaneers' head man. The fifth-year tight end felt equally at home under the tutelage of Parcells in New England in Purnell's first year in the league (1996). In fact, Purnell, feels like he's right back where he started, and that's a good thing.
"Now to come here, it feels like I have that great coaching staff back," he said. "This coaching staff with Coach Dungy…it's like I'm coming full circle. The have two different styles, but Coach Dungy's record speaks for itself. I think he's going to go far, and a lot of people think that."
Purnell didn't actually emerge with the Patriots until his second year, 1997, under new Head Coach Pete Carroll. However, he affords a lot of the credit to Parcells in his development from a special-teamer to a valuable bookend with Pro Bowl TE Ben Coates. In two productive years with the Patriots (1997-98) and one up-and-down campaign in Baltimore (1999), Purnell has continued to mold himself into a more complete player. He believes he has found the perfect place to finish that process.
"It seems like Tampa Bay doesn't just look at the status quo," said Purnell, who also drew interest from the Packers and the Jets before joining the Bucs. "They look at guys who have a knack for working hard and trying to get to that next level. That's the first thing I noticed when I came here to talk to Coach Dungy; he really worked with me and talked to me about getting to the level where I need to be. He saw some spurts in me in New England, and I did some good things there, but he really wants me to have that overall complete game. It's just different when you have a team pushing you to get where you want to be and where they want you to be.
"I've really worked hard at becoming an all-around player. When I first got into the league, it was all about catching the ball. Then, for the last couple of years, it was all about blocking because Ben was catching all the balls. Somebody had to block, and it had to be me. Now, I think I really have a complete game, and I think (the Bucs) saw that on the film. When they brought me in, they really wanted me to do it all. And they like the way I'm blocking now and they like the way I'm catching the ball. It's good, because right now I think I'm really starting to get my part."
Originally drafted by Parcells in the seventh round in 1996, Purnell was traded to the Ravens in March of 1999 after recording 17 receptions for 149 yards and five touchdowns with the Patriots. He never quite fit in with Brian Billick's Ravens, seeing action in only a few games and spending part of the season off the roster. He headed into 2000 as a free agent, looking for the right opportunity. It didn't take long to determine where that opportunity was.
"I'll tell you, going into my fifth year, I know how hard it can be in this league," he said. "I see guys get cut so often. But to have the Bucs' organization – such a good organization, they could probably get any tight end they want – for them to ask me to come here was a great honor. A great honor. I'm here working hard every day because I don't want to take it for granted."
The Bucs sealed the deal in Purnell's heart when they took the effort to call him at home, something none of his other suitors did. He was convinced that Dungy and the Bucs wanted him, and that the offensive system being installed by new coordinator Les Steckel would have a place for him. Last year in Tennessee, Steckel's passing attack was driven by a combined 94 receptions for the tight ends, who also are employed regularly as H-backs.
"You have a good offensive coordinator here that wants to use me in the offense," said Purnell. "That's a great feeling. I can't describe it. Not to go on and on, but I've been in a situation where they weren't going to let me do so much. To come here where they're going to let me play is a great feeling.
"Here they want you to do both (blocking and receiving). They want me to play some H-back, they want me to get on the line and block. And that's one of my strong points, but going down the field and catching the ball over the middle is a strong point, too. I don't think they've put me into just one category. They let me do it all, including special teams. They let me do it all and they let me have fun doing it."
Of course, Purnell is not the only candidate for action in Steckel's attack, though he has seen a lot of action with the first-team offense. The Buccaneers return their starter of the past three years, Dave Moore, who is also a versatile blocking-catching threat. In addition, the team drafted prolific Kentucky TE James Whalen in the fifth round, have fourth-year TE Patrick Hape on hand (though currently unsigned) and have also added Henry Lusk and Jason Freeman. As a former seventh-rounder, however, Purnell knows how to battle the odds. Heck, this guy hails from Delaware, which is not exactly a hotbed of NFL football.
Purnell could actually give the Bucs' two Delaware high-schoolers on the roster, joining Jamie Duncan, the new starter at middle linebacker. "I met Jamie since I got here…I didn't know there was a guy from Delaware here. He says that he knew me, but, see, I'm from lower Delaware, closer to Maryland, and he's up close to Philly. So we were really like two-and-a-half hours apart."
Purnell was also a few years ahead of Duncan, and the two headed in separate directions when the former went to West Virginia and the latter chose Vanderbilt. Purnell chose West Virginia for the same reason he chose the Bucs: he saw an opportunity.
"I thought they were going to give me the ball," he said. "They said they wanted a tight end like me to move the offense in a different direction, and I think we did. Now, they have a tight end (Anthony Becht) get drafted in the first round, by Bill (Parcell's Jets). Even though it was Becht, I knew I had something to do with that."
Purnell's days in Tampa are off to an equally good start. He drew praise for his play during the recent month of voluntary summer workouts, and he has stuck around afterward to continue to work on his conditioning and his game. He has seen no reason to regret his decision to come to Florida.
"I feel good," said Purnell. "The very first mini-camp, I had to get adjusted to the way they ran things. After that, during these workouts, it felt good to hear the quarterbacks coach (Clyde Christensen) say I had a good camp. They really like what I'm doing, and that's a good feeling right now."
As good as he feels now, Purnell probably had his finest NFL moment in 1997, when the Patriots faced the New York Jets on Monday Night Football on September 17. Parcells' departure from New England to lead the Jets had added fuel to that AFC East rivalry, and the game was hard-fought, emotional and very close. Purnell caught a 10-yard touchdown pass, the first of his career, in the fourth quarter to give the Patriots a 24-17 lead over the Jets and Purnell's mentor, Parcells. Though the Jets managed to tie the game, New England won in overtime 27-24.
Hmm. As much as Purnell appreciates Parcells and Dungy, perhaps he has not chosen the best way to show it. The tight end caught three TD passes during that 1997 season, the third coming at Tampa Bay in the closing moments of a 27-7 Buccaneer victory, spoiling what could have been the franchise's first shutout in 12 years.
Nothing personal, of course. Purnell would be more than happy to score one for the home team this time. Just give him the opportunity.