Minutes before practice began on Tuesday morning at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' training camp, Head Coach Raheem Morris came up with a pop quiz for his players. As it turned out, they would pass with flying colors, which is impressive considering they didn't even realize they were being tested.
A common practice tactic used by coaches to test player reactions is the "sudden change" period. One might, for instance, blow the whistle in the middle of a normal team drill and call for the field goal team to get on the field quickly and get a kick off.
On Thursday, the Buccaneers' coach decided on a sudden change on a wider scale. The players came out to the field in shorts and helmets for pre-practice special teams work, but Morris wanted his team to put in some more physical work on this morning. So he called them up into a huddle, announced an unexpected equipment change and waited for the backlash.
"I kind of got a wild hair," said Morris after practice. "I said, 'We're getting soft. I'm going to send them in and put on their pads, just so I can see who will complain.' They ran inside. They kind of turned around and ran in in unison. I was kind of shocked. They came back out, we started practice, went through practice and then I pulled them back up.
"And then I told them, 'I have to confess, I was waiting for somebody to complain and nobody really did.' We had a couple little grumblings but there was nobody really complaining."
Perhaps some of that can be attributed to the same factor that has helped the Bucs mostly avoid injuries and establish a very fast tempo on the practice field: Youth. This is the youngest Tampa Bay team in years, and the players' enthusiasm is evident every day. They are eager to please, and they believe that the following the coaches' plans will lead to the desired results.
Or, as Morris put it: "It sounds like everybody's starting to sip the Kool-Aid, everybody's starting to buy in to what we want to do."
After putting on the pads and running through one short period of individual-position fundamentals, the players spent the rest of a somewhat abbreviated practice on Miami Dolphins scout work. The emphasis on situational football continued with third down and red zone-oriented drills and then the team finished with one 98-yard drive simulation for each side, offense and defense. Though the starters were on the field for the beginning of those drives, much of it was executed by the younger players who will take up most of the playing time in Miami.
The practice was sharp, despite yet another series of rain showers passing through. Morris had to be pleased that his team took the sudden change in stride and even reacted positively to a more strenuous morning on the field.
"It's just a process that we've talked about all throughout training camp, the mentality we're trying to establish with these guys," he said. "Really, that's all it's about. I told these guys right there, 'You've got one opportunity to do this thing. You've got one opportunity to do it big.' And they all feel like it's their opportunity.
The second half of the Buccaneers' two-a-day on Thursday also had a special wrinkle: It was held at nearby Raymond James Stadium rather than team headquarters.
It was the Bucs' second trip to their gameday home in six days, but this one wasn't meant to be like the elaborate show the team put on for 24,000 fans last Saturday night. In this case, the audience was a small group of media members and the purpose was more procedural.
Essentially, it was an acknowledgment that coaches need to practice for gameday, too.
In addition to cones and tackling dummies, the Bucs brought some other equipment with them to the stadium Thursday evening: headsets. Tampa Bay's coaching staff conducted the practice as if it was an actual game, at least from their end. The coaches who would normally be stationed in the press box went upstairs and everybody was wired in through the usual gameday communication system.
"It's not necessarily about playing in the stadium right now," said Morris. "Really, it's for us, the coaches. It's about the communication from the box, the communication to each other, the communication with the personnel, going on and off the field, the travel time that it takes. It's a little bit extra when you run onto the field and then have to run off for defense rather than just turning around and riversiding drills. Going through the simulation of the games, the more meticulous you can be and the more detailed you can be only leads to more success."
That meant virtually all of the work at the stadium, which lasted a bit over an hour, was game-simulation, with the coaches and non-playing Bucs on the sidelines and the plays going in by helmet radio. Once again, the Bucs gave the majority of the action to the second and third-string players who will be carrying the load on Saturday.
Can't Come Soon Enough
The last time the Tampa Bay Buccaneers put on their game uniforms was three days into the new year. For some, including the team's entire 2010 draft class, the wait has been even longer. It's no surprise, then, that as the 2010 preseason opener draws ever closer - the team will fly to Miami on Friday afternoon - there is a palpable excitement growing among the players, particularly the younger ones.
"I think it's about these guys coming together, going out and really having fun together," said Morris. "They're very excited about playing the game and they're excited about hitting other people, but this is a really good group of guys. It's a bunch of guys that are excited about playing football. It's a bunch of guys excited about the process and everything they're going to learn."
The outcome of the game won't mean much in the long run, but for such NFL newcomers as Mike Williams and Gerald McCoy, it's likely to include a collection of unforgettable firsts.
"I'm looking forward to catching my first pass, and going out there and blocking my first NFL player," said Williams with a wide smile. "I'm just looking forward to being out there. Whatever happens, happens."
McCoy sees the opener as a transition, an opportunity to leave the uncertainty of the offseason behind and get back into some familiar territory.
"I'm looking forward to just hitting somebody else besides my own teammates," he said. "I haven't played an actual football game since December 30th when we played Stanford. I'm just looking forward to finally getting back out there, putting on the uniform and getting back at it. You just get the jitters out, the first-game jitters, the rookie jitters, whatever you want to call them. I'm just going to out there, play my technique and see what happens."
And Morris, of course, can't wait to see those two in action in a Bucs uniform for the first time, along with many other of the team's "new toys," as he calls them. More than any specific number of catches for Williams or sacks for McCoy, however, Morris wants to see the rookies adopt the style of football he and his staff have been trying to establish in Tampa the last two years.
"It's physical, hard, tough play," said Morris. "I need to see these guys go out there and be a smart football team even though we're young. You don't want to see the critical errors that can lose football games for you. We've put these guys in a lot of situational football here in practice and they've got to go out there and understand these situations, understand what we're trying to get done. We just want to see those guys do it under the lights."