Within the alternating practice format the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are observing this summer, with two practices on one day and a single practice the next, the second Saturday of training camp called for two trips out to the field.
Ordinarily, that would mean a full-pads, full-speed, intense two-hour workout in the morning followed by an up-tempo but less contact-oriented nightcap. But this was no ordinary day at the Buccaneers' 2010 camp.
Rather, this Saturday will end with the single most anticipated event of Tampa Bay's three-week camp: Night Practice at Raymond James Stadium.
Because Morris has amped up the action for that practice under the stars, including more full-tackling drills than usual and even breaking out skills competitions and the famous "Oklahoma Drill," he chose to ease back on the hitting on Saturday morning. The Bucs also breezed through their morning schedule more quickly than usual, leaving the field about a half-hour early. In the end, that helped them avoid a fast-moving storm that scattered some post-practice showers on the field.
"We went out there today and got a quick, fast practice in, high tempo," said Morris. "It was kind of an OTA type of day with helmets on just to get them a nice lather in the morning. We executed everything, beat the rain, got inside and now they have a little time off until we get ready for the practice tonight."
That Morris was pleased with his team's approach despite the easier workload is another indication that Saturday evening's practice will be quite a show for the fans, who last year showed up in the tens of thousands for the team's first-ever night practice at the stadium. That workout actually took place on the first day of training camp; this time around, the players have had a very full week to get into the flow of camp. The team had its best practice of this year's camp on Friday morning, and Saturday night will be their very next time to put on the pads.
"I'm really fired up about tonight, the fan support and everybody coming up to the stadium," said Morris. "It's going to be an amazing session, so I would definitely be in attendance tonight if I were you. The main thing tonight is all the challenges, the skill episodes and those things that are going to happen."
Morris has indicated that he will include a "live" goal-line drill in Saturday night's schedule, which is sure to ratchet up the intensity. The coach is also considering taking a two-minute drill live so there will be less disagreement over where the officials spot the ball as the offense moves down the field. And the Oklahoma Drill, which pits one blocker and one running back against a single defender in a very confined space, never fails to get the time fired up.
After Saturday's condensed morning session, the players got a good chunk of the afternoon off before the meetings that would lead up to the night practice. They will also be free all of Sunday as they get their first day off since reporting to camp on July 30. All of that means the team should be primed for an all-out performance on Saturday night at the stadium.
If you are in the Bay area and wish to attend Saturday's evening practice, you are encouraged to do so. The event is free and open to all, and it will include $1 hot dogs and soft drinks at the concession stands. The gates open at 5:30 p.m. ET and practice runs from 7:00 to 9:00 p.m. A fireworks show will follow the conclusion of practice. Free parking is available in Lots 5, 6, 6D, 7, 8, 9 and 10, with disabled parking available in Lot C. Click here for more information on the Night Practice at Raymond James Stadium.
Receivers and Linebackers Shine
On Saturday, Coach Morris pinpointed two position groups on the Bucs' 2010 summer roster that have stood out during the first week of training camp, though for different reasons.
The wide receivers have drawn an enormous amount of attention because, Morris says, the competition within the group has been so fierce and so wide open. The starting lineup at linebacker, on the other hand, appears set but that crew's performance has been extremely impressive across the board.
Thanks in part to a rash of injuries, wide receiver was not the Buccaneers' strongest position in 2009. However, the additions of Arrelious Benn and Mike Williams through the 2010 draft and Reggie Brown through free agency have injected new life into the unit and made the eventual starters very hard to predict.
Virtually every receiver on the roster has had a standout practice or two since camp began, including Maurice Stovall, Sammie Stroughter, Michael Spurlock and Michael Clayton. Not all the candidates for the two starting positions are newcomers; Stovall and Clayton both started games in 2009 and Stroughter was perhaps the team's most pleasant surprise after arriving as a seventh-round pick. But there's little doubt that the selections of Benn and Williams in the draft have raised this group's profile and made it perhaps the top attraction of camp.
"You talk about competition, you've got to mention those wideouts," said Morris. "You talk about how fast Mike Williams was able to start. Now you're talking about how Arrelious Benn is really coming on in this last week or so. We talked about it earlier and I knew it was going to happen - Arrelious Benn's game is in the pads. Now we have on pads and you've got to tackle this man, and you've got to be around this guy, and you've got to be blocked by him. You get to put him back there on kickoff return and watch him run through people and arm tackles. It's a little different. It's a big man's game and he's starting to show up.
Morris occasionally stands next to Aqib Talib during practice and polls his rising-star cornerback about who he thinks are the Bucs' top receivers. Morris asks Talib to pick his top six - the potential number of wideouts the team will keep on the 53-man roster - and says he gets a different answer every time. That's a good thing, in Morris's mind.
"You talk about the competition with Arrelious Benn, Mike Williams, Mo; you talk about Sammie Stroughter, Reggie Brown, Michael Clayton," he said. "You've got some guys in there that are some physical beasts. Young guys - [Preston] Parker, [Chris] Brooks. These guys are all playing fast. I don't know if we've seen this dynamic of a group in Tampa in a long time. Not to take any credit away from a Joey Galloway or an Antonio Bryant or what one particular person was able to do in a special season, but this type of a group, I don't know if I can [compare it]."
The Bucs' corps of linebackers was going through the same type of competition and youth infusion just a year ago. The team was determined to find out, for instance, if young reserves and recent draftees Geno Hayward and Quincy Black were NFL starting material. Both of those players eventually won starting jobs, flanking middle linebacker Barrett Ruud on the weak and strong sides, respectively.
All three linebackers showed marked improvement down the stretch in 2009 and all three are performing very well in training camp. Morris clearly believes that his linebackers will be a major strength on defense.
"We brought Coach Lloyd in here, Greg Lloyd, and he's just been raving about the linebacker corps and Quincy Black and Geno Hayes and Barrett Ruud," said Morris. "Then he's also been able to suck these young guys in, the Lee Robinsons, the Dekoda Watsons, the [Adam] Haywards, all those guys, and they've been hanging on his every word. He's talking about combative hands and he's bringing them some of that Pittsburgh Steeler type of toughness, some of the stuff he used to play with. When you hear it coming from a third party like that, it means a lot. I don't want to think I'm going crazy, just looking at the same guys every day and saying, 'Man, they're getting better.' I could be wrong. But when you have other people come in here, guys who know what they're talking about, that played this game, that means something."
Remembering the Best
One day after the Buccaneers practice under the lights on Saturday, the NFL will conduct its first actual game of the 2010 season.
The annual Hall of Fame Game will be contested in Canton on Saturday night between the Dallas Cowboys and Cincinnati Bengals. On Saturday, the Pro Football Hall of Fame will welcome its seven-person Class of 2010.
Because it includes the all-time leading rusher and the all-time leading receiver in NFL history, this class is considered by some to be the best ever. It certainly runs deeper than Emmitt Smith and Jerry Rice, however, as Russ Grimm, Rickey Jackson, Dick LeBeau, Floyd Little and John Randle will also be enshrined this year.
Morris made sure to recognize that entire class when the topic of Smith and Rice came up on Saturday, and not just because Grimm happens to be the father of one his players, rookie safety Cody Grimm. Morris has been a student of the game and its history for much of his life and he remembers the impact that each of these men had on the game.
There's no doubt, however, that Smith and Rice are the marquee names of the class. Moreover, Morris began his NFL career, with the Buccaneers in 2002, in time to see his team face off against both of them. Rice, in fact, was a member of the Oakland Raiders team the Buccaneers defeated in Super Bowl XXXVII at the end of Morris' first season.
Though he says he has since given up his fandom, for obvious reasons, Morris admits that he rooted passionately for the Cowboys as he grew up. Obviously, that made him a big fan of Smith during the 1990s.
"That was America's Team all the way, even up in Jersey around a bunch of Giants fans," said Morris with a laugh. "I argued that thing down, I said Emmitt Smith was the best. I argued him against Barry Sanders for the longest amount of time. I didn't care who really was the best, I just wanted to say Emmitt was the best that day. He ended up being the all-time leading rusher in this league and broke a lot of records and had a lot of amazing games."
Morris' support of the Cowboys put him on the opposite side of the fence from Rice, but he could obviously appreciate the receivers' unparalleled skills and work ethic.
"Jerry was special," said Morris. "I hated him because I was a Cowboys fan but he was always fun to watch. He was exciting. You never knew when he was going to break open the game. He was dangerous, he was explosive. Once I got in the league ... I became a student of the game, watching him play, watching his craft, watching how hard he worked even at the end of his career. That was something that was very impressive to me, with both of those guys."