First-year Head Coach Raheem Morris is laying the groundwork for what he intends to be a more tough and physical squad in 2009
The first thing you noticed Tuesday morning was the music, a soundtrack of hip-hop, reggae and rap beats layered over the action of men stretching out and running through warm-up drills.
It was the first practice of the first mini-camp of 2009 for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who are operating under a first-year head coach in the recently-promoted Raheem Morris. Virtually every player on the 66-man roster had reported for the voluntary session, the first of five the Buccaneers will run over the three-day camp. All of them knew Morris well; many had toiled under him during his days as a Buccaneer assistant coach. But this was the first practice with Morris roaming the field as the man in charge.
Morris's style is upbeat and outgoing, but also demanding. The addition of music was inconsequential, of course, but it fit with the palpable crackle of energy hanging over the practice field. When the warm-ups ended, the music stopped but the tempo remained at a high level.
New defensive coordinator Jim Bates admits he would prefer to have a little country music mixed into the practice play list, but knows that the beat of practice was actually established earlier in the day, when Morris spoke with the entire roster in the team auditorium.
"Oh, he's good, he brings a lot of energy to the team," said Bates of Morris. "He had a very good talk with the team and is setting the tempo. He relates well with the team. I was very impressed.
"I was impressed with the work habits and that was the biggest thing we pushed today. Raheem, myself, all the coaches — we wanted to get good work ethic and build a tempo. We were encouraged with the way they came out. They're not in the greatest of shape but they pushed through the practice and were working on fundamentals. We were well-pleased for the first practice."
The Buccaneers are afforded one additional mini-camp during the 2009 offseason because they have a new head coach. However, the camp is completely voluntary, so it was a good — albeit expected — sign when the players reported en masse. Of the 66 men under contract, only quarterback Brian Griese and running back Earnest Graham were not present. Griese is understandably remaining at home with his wife, Brook, who is eight months pregnant with the couple's second child. Graham, who has been at One Buccaneer Place every day since the offseason program began two weeks ago, surely would have been on hand for camp, too, but he had to excuse himself to tend to a family matter. (Tackle Donald Penn, who is a restricted free agent, was also not present.)
The camp will be followed by more weeks of weight-room workouts and brief meeting-room and field sessions, and then a rookie mini-camp right after the draft in late April. The Bucs will use all of their organized team activity days (OTAs) in May and June and then conclude the offseason program with their one mandatory full-team mini-camp in late June. The additional practices here in late March and early April are being used to lay the first bricks of the foundation.
"Just go back to the basics," said second-year quarterback Josh Johnson of the purpose of the current mini-camp. "It's like [Morris] said to the media when he first got the job — we're establishing the core beliefs and being tough. We can't really be tough right now because we don't have pads on, but he emphasized us being quick, being fast and being technique-sound. That's what this morning's practice was for and that's what this whole mini-camp is for.
Added Johnson's veteran teammate, safety/linebacker Jermaine Phillips: "He just wants you to go out there and compete and have fun and be great. That's what he's pushing and that's what everybody's buying into. We look forward to seeing what happens this mini-camp and here forward."
As Phillips would be the first to say, the Buccaneers have worked hard and established a high-speed tempo in the past, too. Fellow veteran defender Barrett Ruud insists that the atmosphere was enthusiastic and fun in 2008 under previous Head Coach Jon Gruden, too, but admits that Morris has his own infectious style.
"The way he is, he's funny and easy-going but he's not going to be a pushover," said Ruud. "He's going to be a grinder. He doesn't tolerate much. He says, 'This is the time the meeting starts. If you're late for 10 seconds, it's a fine, and then we'll move on.' He's going to have more physical practices but we're still going to have a lot of fun around here."
As Johnson mentioned, Morris has made it clear since ascending to the head coach's office that he wants the Buccaneers to be a tougher team in 2009 and beyond. League rules prohibit contact in practice during the offseason, but the players already know that training camp and in-season practices are going to be somewhat more demanding this year, and they're looking forward to it.
"Obviously you're going to be a little more sore, a little more tired from it, but hopefully it makes us a more physical team," said Ruud. "That's what he's after. Not to say that we weren't a real physical team last year, but a couple teams definitely took it to us a little bit. Hopefully using this method we can play a little better down the stretch."
Crowell Ready by May
Linebacker Angelo Crowell, signed by the Buccaneers two weeks ago to compete for the starting job at strongside linebacker, was one of the few players in attendance who did not take part in practice on Tuesday morning. The former Buffalo Bills starter is on hand learning the system and getting acquainted with his new teammates, but he won't see any action this week, or for the rest of April.
The prognosis on Crowell, however, is good. The seventh-year veteran didn't play last year in Buffalo after having knee surgery in August, but the Bucs knew his timetable when they signed him three weeks into free agency. Crowell is on track to join the team on the field soon and will have plenty of time to assert himself in the linebacker competition.
"[We] got a very favorable report yesterday from [Head Trainer] Todd [Toriscelli] and his training staff that he should be ready to go in May, as far as when we go with the OTAs," said Bates. "I feel real comfortable that he'll be ready to step in and we can see where he's at."
The Buccaneers will be breaking in new starters at both outside linebacker positions after releasing Derrick Brooks and Cato June in February. Crowell is expected to compete for the strongside spot vacated by June, though outside linebackers have to be versatile in Tampa Bay's system.
"He'll play 'Sam,' which is our strongside linebacker," said Bates. "The only thing is, when they do move the tight end, the Sam becomes the Will and the Will becomes the Sam, so it's an interchangeable type position."
Crowell started at strongside linebacker in Buffalo in 2006 and 2007 and amassed a total of 235 tackles, four sacks, three interceptions and 15 passes defensed.
Odds and ends from the first day of Tampa Bay's opening minicamp of 2009…