Entering his fifth season in pro football, defensive end Tim Crowder is one of the hundreds of NFL players in limbo waiting for free agency to occur after the NFL owners and players come to terms on a new collective bargaining agreement. But instead of sitting around being frustrated while watching lawyers for both sides meet and hold press conferences on ESPN, Crowder decided to put his time to better use and go back to college and graduate from the University of Texas.
“At first it was frustrating, but I got the chance to go back to school and graduate and I don’t think I would have had the time to do that if this lockout didn’t occur,” Crowder said. “I got my degree in education – health promotion and fitness. I had to take 18 to graduate, so I just took the full 18 hours. It was a full load.
“But as far as not knowing where your life is going to be or which way it’s going to turn and you’re in limbo, for that reason, I feel like it’s troublesome. There are hundreds of other guys that feel the same way I do, though.”
Crowder, who has spent the last two seasons in Tampa Bay starting 13 of the 31 games he played in with the Buccaneers after being selected in the second round of the 2007 draft by Denver, is slated to become an unrestricted free agent, but would like to stay in pewter and red, especially because of new defensive line coaches Keith Millard and Grady Stretz, who replaced Todd Wash this offseason. Although he has yet to meet Stretz, Crowder does have a bit of a history with Millard dating back to 2007.
“I had to chance to Coach Millard prior to the lockout and prior to the draft for a brief instance,” Crowder said. “We had a relationship before. I met him when he was with the Oakland Raiders when I was coming out in the draft. He liked me then. He felt like I’ve had a lot of unfortunate situations in my career and he felt like I was on the verge of busting out. I feel the same way, too.
“He told me that he watched film of me and that I was showing him some of the things that he knows I can do. He told me it’s a matter of time before I bust out and have that breakout season. He wants to be able to work with some of the things that I can do on the field. Sometimes it takes guys longer to find out what kind of player they are. I feel like I’m in that situation now in terms of finding out who I am as a player.”
Crowder finished the 2010 season with three sacks and one forced fumble while starting nine games after recording 3.5 sacks in 2009 when he started four contests. The 6-foot-4, 260-pounder has been spending the offseason back in his home state of Texas staying in shape by doing a mix of weight-lifting and martial arts.
“I’ve always been a guy that has liked to work out,” Crowder said. “I look at working out as a part of life – not just part of being a football player. I take care of my body, so it doesn’t bother me to be on my own and train. I think I train just as hard here in Texas as I would in Tampa. I’m definitely doing all the martial arts and boxing. I’m doing some old-fashioned workouts, too. I go back home and bale some hay and do all that type of stuff just to keep me humble and remind me where I came from.”
Crowder said that if he was not fixated on getting his degree from Texas during the offseason he would have joined fellow Bucs defensive linemen Gerald McCoy, Kyle Moore, Michael Bennett and number-one pick Adrian Clayborn in San Diego a few weeks ago when McCoy set up a defensive line workout.
“Gerald reached out to me and he’s talked to me a few times, but unfortunately I was taking a full class load and I didn’t have the time to do it,” Crowder said. “I let him know that I’m a veteran now and that I know how to take care of my body. They don’t have to worry about me being in shape if [I’m back in Tampa]. I’m going to be pushing those guys and doing all the things I’ve always done.”
While Crowder knows the Bucs drafted two defensive ends in the first two rounds in Clayborn and Da’Quan Bowers and that might alter the team’s feelings about re-signing him, it has not deterred Crowder from wanting to return to Tampa Bay.
“I think I got the sense that I’m part of their plans, but I do know this is the NFL,” Crowder said. “ They just drafted two defensive ends high in the draft, and I’ve been in that situation before in Denver. I was a second-round pick and Jarvis Moss was a first-round pick. I understand what the young guys in the NFL are going to go through.
“I just see it as more competition and everybody benefits. It’s better for everybody. I’m not the type of guy that says, ‘Oh, I’m going to hate on you guys because they are high draft picks. When they come in I’m going to hug them and tell them that I’ll be there for them. I’m really going to be there for them. I’m real genuine about that. I want them to succeed and do better than I did at the start of my career. That’s just the type of mindset that I have.”
Part of the reason why Crowder wants to return to Tampa Bay is because of the change in coaching philosophy when it comes to the defensive line. Wash was a stickler for his defensive linemen reading and reacting to the play, but staying in their gaps and maintaining gap integrity. But head coach and defensive coordinator Raheem Morris wants to get back to the Rod Marinelli-style of defensive line play, which is to attack the gap, shoot through it and penetrate the line of scrimmage rather than just yielding at the line.
“I haven’t talked to Coach Stretz. I’ve only talked to Coach Millard, but that’s the sense that I got from speaking with him,” Crowder said. “As far as having a young defensive line, they are new to the NFL and they will try to do all of the correct things, but when coaches over-coach that can hurt the player. As far as me, I’m getting back to the point where I know at the end of the day I have to make plays. I can’t stick on my blockers and hold the gap too long. I can’t say, ‘Okay, I’ve got my gap. My job is done.’ I have to go get the ball and make things happen. It has to be okay for me to go over there and make the tackle.
“That’s another thing that happens with age. You realize the things that you can and can’t do. The more you are in a defense the more comfortable you are in relying on your instincts. You say to yourself, ‘It’s second-and-long, and I feel like a pass is coming.’ If they are in a run stance and I just react to the run rather than rush the passer, that can hurt your team. I think confidence in your instincts and abilities comes in time. As far as the coaches giving you that type of freedom – that plays a part in it, too.”
With the Bucs ranking last in the NFC with just 26 sacks last year, Morris and general manager Mark Dominik hired Millard to serve as Tampa Bay’s pass rush coach, while Stretz will serve as the run-stuffing coach, which is an area his Sun Devils did quite well over the last couple of years at Arizona State. Crowder hopes he can re-sign with the Bucs for the chance to work with Millard.
“I think he’s very, very cool,” Crowder said of Millard, who played in the NFL for nine seasons and set the NFL record for sacks in a single season for a defensive tackle with 18 in 1989. “We hit it off real well at the combine years ago. He’s a former player and he’s played in the league. I think he still has the record for defensive tackles for sacks in a single season in the NFL or something crazy like that. The things I’ve heard about him, I know he knows all about getting to the quarterback and creating havoc.
“He’s the kind of coach where he will let players play their way. He’s not going to teach everybody how to do the same move the same way. He’s going to work with the skills that you have and he’s going to try to perfect you. That’s his coaching style, and as a player you can’t ask for more than that.”
While Crowder has the desire to remain a Buccaneer, he also knows that free agency is a two-way street and that the team has to still want him after drafting Clayborn and Bowers for him to stay in Tampa Bay. And at the same time, the 25-year old Crowder also has a family to provide for and will have to look at all of his options in free agency when it comes to the financial aspects of other teams’ offers and how they stack up compared to the Buccaneers’.
“I think I will seek out the best opportunity for me,” Crowder said. “I just want to be in the best situation for my family. I’m very, very happy in Tampa. I love the weather. I love the facility. I love the coaching staff and Raheem and Mark Dominik. They all believe in me. That’s such a big part of it – people believing in you. I would love to come back to Tampa, but I also understand that they drafted two defensive ends. I just want to be in the right situation out there for me.”
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