It wasn’t hard to convince former New Orleans center Jeff Faine to head to division rival Tampa Bay within the first hour of free agency at just past midnight on February 29. A little thing called $37 million over six years can be pretty persuasive.
But a phone call from Buccaneers head coach Jon Gruden just after midnight, and the fact that Faine would be moving closer to his hometown of Orlando also played a huge role.
After three losing years in Cleveland, Faine tasted success in 2006 in his debut with the Saints as New Orleans went 10-6 and won the NFC South division for the first time. He gained a healthy respect for the Buccaneers last year as Tampa Bay wrested the NFC South title away from Faine and New Orleans and made it into the postseason. The fact that the Bucs were winners also added to the appeal of moving back to Florida.
“They made the playoffs last year,” Faine said of the Buccaneers. “I see a bright future for the offensive line here. That's important for me because it’s not fun to play on an offensive line that’s not doing well around you. Like I said, young talent – and I’ve always been a huge fan of Coach Gruden … his style, his coaching style. I thought that it was a really good chance to make it back into the playoffs and hopefully play for a Super Bowl. And it doesn’t hurt that I’m from Orlando. [Tampa] is an hour and 15 minutes from my house.”
With a pressing need at center, Faine knew the Bucs were interested in signing him as a free agent this offseason and decided to do some investigating to make sure Tampa Bay would be an ideal fit for him.
“I’ll be honest, last year when my agent was mentioning teams that were interested, I immediately went and looked at the situation and asked around – some of the guys that knew some of the guys from college, and one of my old teammates went to college with Davin [Joseph],” Faine said. “I wanted to know what kind of guys they were as well. That's important to me as well, that there's good chemistry throughout the team – especially good chemistry on the offensive line. I heard nothing but good things, and I heard nothing but good things about their play."
Faine and Bucs nose tackle Chris Hovan had already developed some unique “chemistry” on the gridiron before becoming teammates. The duo battled hard twice per year over the last two seasons with last year’s game at New Orleans ending up with chippy play, pushing and shoving and plenty of trash talk.
“We got into some really good battles between me and him, and it got really, really chippy in the last time we played (laughs),” Faine said. “It was fun, and that’s the thing I was trying to tell him too because he kind of took it personal (laughs). I’m a competitor. I like to play hard. I like to play to the whistle.”
Faine has earned the respect of defensive tackles like Hovan throughout the league because of his physical play and his aggressiveness.
“I think mostly it’s respected,” Faine said. “Mostly, it’s not taken personal like it was [with Hovan] (laughs). Mostly, it’s just a long day [for them]. It’s just a hard game. That was one of the first in a quite a few times that it had been taken personal.”
Hovan was excited to see a former enemy become an ally on March 1 when Faine officially became a Buccaneer. Hovan told PewterReport.com that Faine was the best center he faced last year due to his athleticism, his aggressiveness and his intelligence.
“We’re glad to have him,” Hovan said. “I think he’s a key addition for us in the offseason. He’s tough and he’ll scrap with you the whole game.
“This is going to be hard for New Orleans. He was the key to that offensive line. It was a top O-line and we knew we had to break out the big boy pads when we were playing New Orleans. Now he’s helping us out. That’s the way free agency can work and we’re glad he’s a Buc.”
Faine said he and Hovan have already smoothed over their differences from the Bucs vs. Saints clash in New Orleans last year. Tampa Bay won that game, 27-23, and essentially clinched the NFC South title.
“He was one of the first people I saw, and he was one of the first people to welcome me in,” Faine said. “But there was something said after the game and I don’t know if it's exactly proper (laughs). I tried to cool the situation after the game and said, ‘Hey, it’s just a game. I was just playing.’ There was trash-talking and everything – it got really personal. I know some of his friends from back home in Cleveland, so I was using everything I had (laughs). I knew one of his very personal friends that he grew up with. It was a buddy [of his] and we were actually teammates at Notre Dame. It wasn’t a lot of stuff from his past, just a lot of general talk.”
Faine is looking forward to playing his former team, the Saints, twice next year, although he harbors no ill will towards the franchise, which opted not to get into a bidding war with the Bucs to re-sign him.
“I look forward to it,” Faine said. “It was difficult to leave. I had a great two years there. I really enjoyed playing there, I really enjoyed the coaches there, I really enjoyed the city. It was tough to leave, but I was excited to be here and it's going to be exciting to go back. I’ve had a pretty good record against ex-teams (laughs), so hopefully we can keep it going. It's going to be a fun situation.”
Faine recalled his first year in New Orleans with fondness. He had signed with the Saints in 2006 just after Hurricane Katrina hit and the city was still in full recovery mode cleaning up from the floods.
“It was pretty tough at first,” Faine said. “When I first got there, I think the count was there were 25 street lights working. You hit a street and the police officers and the place is so busy with everything else that you [could] main drag it 100 miles per hour and there would be no issues – no street lights, nothing. I lived right downtown in New Orleans in a penthouse condo, and I looked out when I first moved in and there was darkness. It was creepy. It was different at first, but once everything got going … New Orleans is a special city. That’s one of the things – I haven’t been around Tampa too much – about New Orleans. It is a special city. I am going to miss New Orleans. It’s a fun, special city. There’s a lot of character. And I’ll go back. It’s a good city. It was different at first though.”
Aside from his personal surroundings, what will be different for the 26-year old Faine is lining up with a host of new offensive linemen, most of whom will be younger than he. Faine said he had a lot of respect for the way left guard Arron Sears played as a rookie, and has a lot of appreciation for the way Joseph handles himself at right guard. Faine has already spent a lot of time in the film room at One Buccaneer Place analyzing his new teammates and trying to study their approach to the game on tape.
“It is a little challenging at the center position here more than other places,” Joseph said. “A lot more is put on our shoulders here – that is the reason I’m putting in these hours early. I think that playing with these young guys will be easier than playing with guys that are set in their ways. I think it’s going to be an advantage on my part. I’m sitting here watching tape and talking with some of these guys – like I said, I didn’t watch before last year, but I'm really impressed, especially with Davin – he showed me some really great things on tape. I’m looking forward to it, they’re looking forward to playing with me, and I’ve expressed that a lot. I’m excited about the situation.” What makes Tampa Bay’s center situation different from other teams is the fact that Faine will primarily be responsible for the line calls and making the audibles based on what he is seeing from the defensive front. Most NFL teams rely on the quarterback to make such audibles at the line of scrimmage.
"I've always had – even my rookie year – I've always had responsibility with it, but like I said, the things that were kind of left upon the quarterback at other places is placed on the center here. But I like it. It gives me a sense of a little more control. I can control it and know what’s going on before, I guess before it even gets out of my mouth. And I think that’s what Coach Gruden and Coach Muir are asking of the center, to let the quarterback just go out there and play and not worry about the protections. I think that’s a great deal – it gives the quarterback the opportunity to look at other things and study other things, and not worry about the protections in pass. With Drew Brees, he controlled a lot of the protections. I’d get the ball started but if he saw something happening, he'd change it. But here, it’s based on me. I like it. I think it’s better for the offense.”
Gruden wants his centers to “Make the call and deliver the ball.” That means he is looking for the right combination of intelligence and physical play in the player charged with the responsibility of anchoring the offensive line. But with the physical limitations of John Wade, who was Tampa Bay’s center from 2003-07, Gruden wants more tenacity and aggressiveness out of the center position.
"For the talks that we've had and the times that we've sat down, he hasn't put much stock into the whole mental thing,” Faine said. “I mean, it's there and he's expressed that there will be a lot that he's going to put on me, but he's expressed adamantly that he loves the physical style of play that I bring. He wants me to keep it up. And the extra stuff that isn't required of the job, but that I just like to do – some people say it’s cheap shots, but I wouldn't say it's cheap shots … it's just finishing – I look at it as the more times I hit a player I’m punishing his body. They're not prepared for it [and] the less they're going to have on the next play or in the fourth quarter [and] the less they're going to want to play harder. That’s just my opinion on offense line play.
“I’ve been praising Davin and I’m hoping you guys don’t quote [me] too much because then it might grow his head out of place there (laughs), but that's the type of play I see out of him [cleaning up the pile]. That’s the kind of things Coach Gruden liked in my play and that’s the kind of things I’d like to continue to do. That’s just me, though. That’s just how I play. That’s just how I like to play. It’s encouraging to see other players on the line already doing that.”
The Bucs are paying Faine, who has been a five-year starter in the NFL after being Cleveland’s first-round pick in 2003, handsomely with a lucrative deal that includes a $12 million signing bonus. But Faine comes across like an average Joe with a chip on his shoulder, not a fat cat who has “arrived” now that he has been handed a suitcase full of cash.
Faine says he does not feel any pressure to live up to the fact that he is the highest-paid center in the NFL. Rather, the pressure is to perform at a high level for his new teammates, coaches and fans.
“[The money] kind of handles itself,” Faine said. “I don’t really think about the money anymore now. Of course, you want as much as you can get – you know – while you can. It's a short, limited career. But I'm here now, and the pressure is what it would be if I was making league minimum or what I'm making now. The pressure is to win. The pressure is to get results. I play for more. Once I'm on the field, [money] has nothing to do about it. I play for the respect of my teammates, the respect of my fans, the respect of my coaches. At the end of the day, that’s what I want more than anything. And I hope this money thing is really not an issue as it goes down the line because once I got it, that’s the farthest thing I’ll play for.”
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Scott Reynolds is in his 25th year of covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the vice president, publisher and senior Bucs beat writer for PewterReport.com. Author of the popular SR's Fab 5 column on Fridays, Reynolds oversees web development and forges marketing partnerships for PewterReport.com in addition to his editorial duties. A graduate of Kansas State University in 1995, Reynolds spent six years giving back to the community as the defensive line coach for his sons' Pop Warner team, the South Pasco Predators. Reynolds can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org