LB Jamie Winborn had no difficulty adjusting to the first day in pads
It wasn't a demonstrative celebration, it wasn't disrespectful and it didn't mean a lot just three days into training camp, but the little jig and shake of the hips performed by Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker Jamie Winborn after he burst into the backfield and stuffed a run play Sunday did mean one thing: he's feeling good and having fun.
That hasn't been a common occurrence in recent years for the sixth-year linebacker who suffered several injury-plagued seasons with the San Francisco 49ers and Jacksonville Jaguars before signing with the Bucs in April.
The play came during full-team drills Sunday, the first day the team practiced in pads. While most players were getting acclimated to the change, Winborn looked at home in the full-contact drill, penetrating the backfield almost instantaneously on the snap and squaring up running back Jacque Lewis. The result would have surely been a bone-jarring tackle for a loss had the sixth-year linebacker not pulled up, as players are instructed to do in this drill.
"He's doing well," said Head Coach Jon Gruden. "It's still awfully early, but we like what we see. The physical part of his game is coming back. He's had some injuries the last couple of years, well documented. His health is returning, and it shows. He'll stick his head in there."
Winborn's ability has never been questioned. The second-round draft pick of the 49ers in 2001, Winborn has been an effective run-stopper and blitzer, when healthy. In 2004, he played in 14 games and totaled 104 tackles and 4 ½ sacks. That's the form the Bucs are hoping he can return to this season.
"This guy is a football player, man," Gruden said. "He is a Buccaneer linebacker. If we can get him back to 100 percent health and the kind of player he was in San Francisco and at Vanderbilt, we're going to be very happy with Jamie Winborn."
So far, optimism is high. It hasn't been uncommon to hear Defensive Coordinator Monte Kiffin call Winborn's name in drills, praising the linebacker for his hustle and reaction time. At 5-11 and 242 pounds, Winborn is not the biggest linebacker, but his speed and instinctive play have helped him mesh well with the Bucs' vaunted defensive scheme, which relies heavily on speed.
"I just stick to what I do," Winborn said. "I've been doing my thing on another coast, and a lot of guys haven't been able to see me, but I do have the tapes if they want to see it. I've just got to come out here and accept my role within this team, whether that's going down running on kickoffs or whether that's stepping up and getting in and playing. Whatever they do, whenever they call my number, I just have to be ready."
Helping Winborn with his preparedness is fellow Bucs linebacker and perennial Pro Bowler Derrick Brooks, the man Winborn backs up. Winborn said Brooks has been his favorite player for a long time and that he relishes the opportunity to learn from one of the best linebackers in the NFL.
"I picked [number] 55 because I was in San Francisco, and I figured [Brooks] would probably be done by the time I got to the level I wanted to get to," Winborn said. "But I've come up here and seen him run, and I'm like 'Wow, man. He's still got it.' It seems like he's got five or six more years, to me. It's just good. I can learn a lot from him, and he's so helpful to me. It's just a great opportunity for me to be behind him and learn."
A first-year Buccaneer, Winborn acknowledges the team's attitude and mindset stand out to him.
"The guys out here want to win – everything from how they talk to how they practice, even in the offseason," he says. "When I first got here, the whole team was out there running and pushing sleds. You've got guys who have – I forget how many Pro Bowls they have, they have so many. When you see those guys out there pushing the same sleds, that just says it all for you right there."
As for playing under the demanding Gruden, Winborn says he couldn't be happier.
"Gruden's great," said the linebacker. "I need a tape recorder. I think he is the funniest head coach in the league. He's the most serious and funniest at the same time. He just loves football, and you've got to love a coach like that. The things that he says – he can take a player and break him down real quick and then build him up in the same sentence. It leaves you just stuck, and you think 'I just better work harder.' He's just a good guy, and he pushes you."
It's clear that for Winborn, the change of scenery has been good. He's playing in a system in which he fits. He's learning from the best. He's playing for a coach he likes…but maybe most importantly, he's on the field making plays and having fun.