LB Jamie Duncan was relaxed as he reported to his first camp as a designated starter
Swarms of media. New faces belonging to Pro Bowl veterans. Players showing up early and hustling to the first meeting.
It felt like the start of something big as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers reported to training camp on Sunday.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are entering their 25th season, their 13th in training at the University of Tampa. It's doubtful that any previous campaign was as hotly anticipated as this one at the turn of the century. While the draft, mini-camp and nuggets of free agent news here and there have kept the Bucs in focus during the winter, spring and early summer, they were all mere warm-ups to Sunday.
When training camp starts, there's no slowing down or turning back. The 2000 season has begun for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
That is certainly well understood by the players, all 88 of whom reported to camp by 2:00 p.m. on Sunday. While training camp keeps the players away from their families for the better part of three weeks and subjects them to grueling two-a-day practices in the Tampa heat, it also means the beginning of a pursuit for which they are well-primed.
DE Marcus Jones, who emerged with a career-best seven sacks in 1999, is ready to trade his pre-camp routine for the one his coaching staff has in mind. "I did a lot of stuff around the house (during the offseason)," said Jones with a laugh. "My wife always put me to work, made me paint the house and do all kinds of yard work. It's been fun, but I'm ready to be back now.
I got here about 10 o'clock this morning, the first person here. I couldn't help myself. I couldn't wait anymore. I couldn't sleep last night in anticipation of being around all the guys, getting here and settling down. I just couldn't wait."
Jones, in fact, was so keyed in on his 2000 preparations that he began devising unusual training techniques. "I've been doing a lot of things," he said. "I've been pushing the car around the neighborhood. My neighbors would come out and say, 'You need some help with that?' 'No, I'm just working out.' I've been doing that, doing a lot of running, just trying to get right for the year. Trying to get right for Rod, because Rod's going to kill us."
Jones' 'car' by the way, is an Expedition. Still, even that weighty matter is no substitute for the real thing, according to Jones' new teammate, Pro Bowl WR Keyshawn Johnson.
"I'm in shape, but I'm not in football condition," said Johnson. "Nobody is. If anybody tells you they're in football condition now...I don't care how much they've been doing. It's different when you're practicing every day. You're stopping and starting and doing things differently. I can run all day long and lift weights all day long, jump, stuff like that. It won't be the same as catching footballs, running, getting hit, having to get up after you get tackled and try to get back to the huddle. It's different."
Johnson, at least, is used to lofty expectations. Before some cruel injury knocks, his 1999 New York Jets were considered a prime Super Bowl contender, just as the Bucs are in 2000. Johnson has also been a starter from his rookie season on, and he will step into that role with the Buccaneers after being acquired in April for two first-round draft picks.
Third-year linebacker Jamie Duncan, on the other hand, is going into his first season as a starter. Furthermore, he is the only new player in a defensive starting lineup that ranked third in the NFL last year. Duncan checked in just shortly before the 2:00 p.m. deadline on Sunday, but not because he's trying to go incognito. In fact, he's prepared to meet the challenge of replacing Pro Bowler Hardy Nickerson dead on.
"I just try to stay the course," said Duncan of his first camp as a designated starter. " I prepare each week like I'm the starter, and that's not going to change. I'm just going to attack and not run from it.
"It's a lot different feeling coming into camp for me this year. You're always excited – it's like the first day of school – but this is like the first day of going into high school. It's a big step for me and I'm looking forward to it.
"I'm feeling pretty good. I'm healthy – that's the main thing. I'm looking forward to it, just like everybody is. Ever since being in the locker room in St. Louis, I think everybody's been looking forward to this moment."
That January day in St. Louis, when the Buccaneers were forced to contemplate a last-minute five-point loss in the NFC Championship Game, clearly has stuck in all of their minds. Even second-year kicker Martin Gramatica, who supplied all of the Bucs' points in that 11-6 loss to the eventual Super Bowl champions, still feels the sting.
"I think everybody's been waiting and we want revenge, so we're here ready to go," said Gramatica. "It's just motivational...it didn't work out last year but we think it can this year."