Buccaneers wide receiver Vincent Jackson has had five 1,000-yard seasons and has been to the Pro Bowl three times in his illustrious career, but he hasn’t been to the playoffs in four years. At age 31, Jackson wants to get back to his winning ways – now.
The good news for Jackson is that falls right in line with the message that new Bucs head coach Lovie Smith preached to his team on Monday as the 2014 offseason workouts officially began at One Buccaneer Place.
“[My will to win], it’s never been stronger,” Jackson said. “That’s what we suit up for every Sunday or Monday or whenever it is. We have the guys in this building that that’s what we’re all talking about so far. It’s about winning. Winning is fun. As much as doing this part of the year is necessary, on Sundays it’s about scoring more points than the other team – if it’s one point or outscoring teams by 30 points. That’s what we plan on doing.
“[Smith’s] message was clear. We’re not going to get ahead of ourselves and start thinking too much about the season as much as our goals are there and we’ve established those already. We know you have to take one step at a time, one day at a time with these offseason workouts, OTAs and mini-camps. They’re important. That’s what we’re focused on. We have a long way to go. I think guys are hungry and excited to go through the process of being an elite team in this league.”
Two years ago, Jackson had a Pro Bowl season in which he hauled in 72 catches for a career-high 1,384 yards (19.2 avg.) and eight scores. He followed that up with a career-high 78 receptions for 1,224 yards (15.7 avg.) with seven touchdowns in 2013 while facing double coverage quite often as number two wide receiver Mike Williams was lost for the year by midseason due to a torn hamstring.
To say that Jackson is the team’s most talented, accomplished and experienced receiver on the Bucs’ roster is an understatement. Since the trading of Mike Williams to Buffalo last Friday for a sixth-round pick, the Bucs’ most experienced receivers consist of journeyman Louis Murphy, who has just 121 catches for 1,744 yards and eight career touchdowns, and Lavelle Hawkins, who has only 71 catches for 771 yards and one touchdown in six NFL seasons. Both Murphy and Hawkins are new to Tampa Bay.
Players with even less playing time and experience include Chris Owusu, Eric Page, Skye Dawson and Tommy Streeter, who have combined for just 19 catches for 209 yards and no touchdowns in their brief NFL careers.
The Bucs are expected to draft a receiver or two early in the 2014 NFL Draft to provide Jackson with another receiver that can take some of the pressure off, but the team captain says he’s comfortable with the pieces that are already in place.
“I trust our staff and all of the other players we have in this building,” Jackson said. “They’re here for a reason. These guys are professionals. They’re good. Anybody we put out there on the field they’re going to be able to make plays – no matter who it is. I love everybody we have here so far, and I’m sure we’ll continue to add to that. I don’t worry about that part of it. I’m just here to do my job and do it the best I can and what’s asked of me: blocking, running guys off, being a decoy. That’s part of being a teammate.”
Jackson has an unselfish attitude, and that’s a plus in new offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford’s system, which will spread the ball around the entire field rather than have the majority of passes target only one receiver, which was the case last year.
“We’re a couple of days in – I’m just getting into the playbook myself – but I can tell it’s going to be very balanced,” Jackson said. “We’re going to move the ball around a lot. Probably going to be a little more up-tempo and probably change the speed of the game. That’s exciting. That’s fun. That will allow us to dictate more to the defense. We want to be very versatile. We have great running backs, great tight ends and great receivers. We’re definitely going to spread the ball around.
“Obviously, we’ve only been here two days, but you can just tell [Tedford’s] patience and his understanding of the offense and teaching guys the fundamentals of it, starting from scratch and building it in such a way that we have a foundation through this spring. So when we start up in training camp, we don’t want to be behind the eight ball saying, ‘Oh well, it’s our first year together. We should have more time to learn.’ No. We’re putting this together the right way this spring so when we hit training camp we’re just fine-tuning and getting ready to roll.”
Jackson will have a different starting quarterback throwing him the ball in 2014 as newly signed Josh McCown has been anointed as Tampa Bay’s starter over Mike Glennon, who threw 19 touchdowns and nine interceptions as a rookie last season.
“We’re excited about all the guys we have,” Jackson said. “Mike did a great job last year. He’s a great quarterback and I’m sure he’s a big asset to this team. Bringing Josh in only adds a great player, like we’ve done at multiple positions. Our management has done a great job of solidifying us in that area. I believe in everyone we have in the building right now and as we continue to add through the draft it’s only going to make us stronger.”
With 16 new free agents this year, including McCown, the Bucs’ locker room has a different look and feel to it. Yet after a 4-12 season, Jackson isn’t shocked by the roster turnover in 2014.
“I wouldn’t say I’m surprised,” Jackson said. “You look around the league and at what everyone’s doing. There are a lot of big changes that some people might think are surprises, but that’s the way this league works. All that matters is once you get in the building you bond with the guys that you have here, you bond with your staff and you grow together. When the season comes, that’s your family. That’s what you’re working with for the year. … There are a lot of new faces. It’s exciting. There’s some good people and a great staff. We’re getting to know each other and getting things rolling. It’s exciting.
“It’s a fun time of year. Guys get to grow and learn about each, and meet new faces, hear their stories and grow as a family. Obviously, we have new systems to grow in, so it’s a big learning curve. We’re excited about it and the energy is high right now.”
Despite the changes on the roster and on the coaching staff, Jackson’s approach to the offseason workouts remains unchanged from the day entered the league 10 years ago in San Diego.
“I approach every season like a rookie,” Jackson said. “I come in humble and I don’t worry about what I’ve accomplished. It’s about coming in here and earning my position and earning my playing time on the field and continue to work on my craft and my fundamentals of the game. We have some great coaches and I have a great position coach. He’s going to be awesome to work with this year, so I’m excited about that. I always believe I can get better. I think I have that attitude and if we can get the young guys to believe in that we’ll all improve.”
As he nears the end of his professional football career, Jackson feels compelled to win now more than ever. That’s also why Smith and new general manager Jason Licht addressed so many needs in free agency by bringing several experienced veterans, including McCown, to Tampa Bay. Jackson said the team has quickly bought into Smith’s “win now” message and there is a greater sense of urgency at One Buccaneer Place as a result.
“It’s putting in the time and being accountable,” Jackson said. “Showing up for this time of year. It’s all voluntary, but I think we’ll have north of 95 percent attendance throughout this spring. That’s going to be huge for us – to have guys in the building getting to know each other and getting to know the system and putting the work out there on the field. That’s going to give us the head start we need to catch up. Other teams have been together for a few years and have their systems installed. We don’t have that luxury, so this time of year is important for us.”
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