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After suffering through two straight losing seasons, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers organization took a step back and looked at the big picture this offseason.
Not only did Bucs head coach Jon Gruden and general manager Bruce Allen have to concern themselves with the salary cap, who to retain, who to let go of and who to sign via free agency, and who to draft, they also sought to remedy a problem that they perceived as a glaring weakness on their football team – camaraderie.
Things are noticeably different inside the locker room at One Buccaneer Place these days, and it’s not just because the Bucs are off to a 2-0 start, which is the team’s best start since the 2000 season. The chemistry has been building amongst Bucs players ever since the start of the offseason, and according to the players, that was the team’s plan all along.
“That’s one of the things Coach Gruden focused on for us during the offseason,” Bucs cornerback Brian Kelly said of building team camaraderie. “We got to together, gelled and learned to appreciate our teammates. We’re definitely doing that, and it’s showing both on and off the field. Guys are rooting for each other and excited to see each other make plays.”
Tampa Bay opens its locker room to the media each and every Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, and the change in locker room chemistry from this time last year to now is apparent to anyone who frequents the locker room.
It’s commonplace to see players from different backgrounds, colleges and positions hanging together in the locker room, striking up conversations or simply playing a game of cards, whereas last year some players were often seen sitting by themselves or going off into their own little groups.
The chemistry and respect they have for each other now can be traced back to the things the players did together during the offseason.
“Everybody is together,” said Bucs defensive end Greg Spires. “Having everybody here throughout the offseason really has helped. As an offensive and defensive line, we used to all go out to eat together during the offseason. Doing things like that has helped to build the camaraderie up. Guys like being around each other, and guys like going out there and playing for each other.”
Gruden went as far as taking the Bucs bowling and to the movies on days that were originally scheduled for organized team activities. While those excursions helped the players bond, the fact that the team had nearly 100 percent participation during OTAs, which are voluntary, helped, too.
“They worked hard this offseason together,” said Allen. “Most of the guys were generally here the full amount of time the league allows them to be here during the offseason. That’s what helps build camaraderie.”
Gruden has been accused of disliking young players, but he’s slowly but surely dispelling that myth. In fact, Tampa Bay’s head coach credits his younger players for helping to build the camaraderie that currently exists at One Buc Place.
“I think there’s a noticeable change on our team just in terms of the chemistry, these young players have added a lot here,” said Gruden.
Because of their salary cap restraints and lack of draft picks, the Bucs had been forced to build their teams mostly through free agency from 2002-04. Last year, Tampa Bay signed nearly 30 free agents, most of which inked one-year deals.
With players like linebacker Keith Burns, running back Jamel White and wide receivers Tim Brown and Bill Schroeder all signed to one-year deals, it became difficult for the Bucs locker room to become completely united since several of the players knew their tenures in Tampa Bay would likely be short-lived.
“We had 18 or 19 players last year that were signed to one-year contracts and we had to do that in our opinion,” said Gruden. “It was a tough situation at times because I don’t think that there were people that were convinced that they were going to be here for the long haul.”
Several Bucs players could understand why some of the players signed to one-year contracts wouldn’t make the effort to bond with their teammates.
“I signed a four-year deal, but I can understand a guy who signed a one-year deal coming in and just doing what they tell him to do and not trying to make friends and not try to get too involved,” said Tampa Bay DE Dewayne White. “I wouldn’t know because I’m not in that position.
“If you invest in this team for four years, you’re going to do whatever it takes to make it better. You’ll try to invest in friends, living in this area and the team. As for someone who is not invested in the team, it may be different.”
Chemistry used to not be an issue for the Bucs. Linebacker Derrick Brooks, safety John Lynch and defensive tackle Warren Sapp were all brought up through the organization together, and other players simply fed off of their respect for each other, the team and the organization as a whole. That was clear to some of the younger players in the Bucs locker room.
“They have more invested in the system and they are going to grow up with the system,” White said of the younger players who are signed to long-term deals. “It’s sort of like your homegrown family. You’re going to believe in everything the coach is saying. If somebody comes in for one year, trying to get them to believe in everything you’re saying can be tough. If they are here for more than one year, they aren’t worried about trying to get some good tape on field for somebody else.”
Several players had uncertain futures with the Bucs last season, and it wasn’t only the players signed to one-year deals. Some current Bucs players felt several free-agents-to-be were more concerned with their contract statuses than how the Bucs were faring on Sundays last year. That lack of team focus didn’t cause Tampa Bay to go 7-9 in 2003 or 5-11 in ’04, but it certainly didn’t help matters, either.
“I think it’s really important,” Spires said of having good team chemistry. “This is a team sport, and you’re not going to get very far when individuals are out there trying to do their own thing. If you don’t have that and you’ve got guys trying to do their own thing, it can definitely hurt you. Then you’re not playing as a team.”
Other players simply suggested that Tampa Bay lost focus of how important it was to come together as a team during the offseason.
“I don’t think it was necessarily a bad camaraderie last year, it was just something we didn’t focus on,” said Kelly. “It was just something we stopped paying attention to, and when you stop paying attention to something you lose it.”
Not only were the players being signed inking one-year contracts, several of them were 30-something players. That glaring generation gap lasted two seasons and made it difficult for the Tim Browns, Todd Steusies, Derrick Deeses and Charlie Garners of the team to bond with and relate to the Chris Simms, Sean Mahans, Michael Claytons, Marquis Coopers and the younger players.
“I think age is the biggest thing,” said Simms. “There was a generation gap before. My first year here there were a lot of young guys, and there were guys like Lynch, Sapp and older, more mature guys who have been around a long time. But there was no middle. There was no common area.”
But things have changed this year as a result of the seed that was planted during the 2004 offseason. While Tampa Bay signed over two dozen free agents in ’04, it also took some huge steps in terms of forming a youth movement at One Buc Place.
Five draft picks – Clayton, Cooper, S Will Allen, G Jeb Terry and TE Nate Lawrie – gave the Bucs a solid nucleus of young players to build around for the following year.
Last April, Tampa Bay had 12 draft picks, and 11 of them initially made the 53-man roster. Wide receiver Larry Brackins was placed on the practice squad, but WR/PR Mark Jones, who entered the NFL with the Bucs the year before but was released before the start of the ’04 season, re-signed with the team.
That gave Tampa Bay a total of 17 players from its two latest drafts on either its active roster or practice squad. Each of them are younger than 25, and they’re all signed to long-term deals.
“With some of these young guys with five-year deals, there’s no way out,” said Gruden. “Whether you want to admit it or not there is a lot of truth to that, that’s why you need to draft well and continue to build thought the draft.”
And although the Bucs did sign a few free agents to one-year deals, they only have a total of 14 players on their active roster who are 30 years of age or older.
“Now, we’ve got a whole new crop of young guys, and a lot of the free agents we’ve signed are not 35 or 36,” said Simms. “They’re 29 or 30 years old. It’s real easy to mesh with them.
“That’s the way the league is going. Free agency has changed the look of the league. You’ve got to expect young players to come in and be ready to produce in Year 2 or Year 3. I think it helps with the younger guys bonding – guys like J.R. Russell, Larry Brackins, Cadillac (Williams) and Clayton – they can all go out and hang out and they’ll be here for a while.”
He was looked at as a rookie last year, but the youth movement at One Buc Place has quickly made Clayton a veteran leader in the locker room and on the field. He’s seen a noticeable change in the camaraderie at One Buc Place and says it’s definitely for the better.
“It’s where it needs to be,” said Clayton. “I’d say we’ve definitely come a long ways from where we were last year. It’s night and day, the attitude, compared to last year. The confidence level is definitely night and day. The camaraderie is where it needs to be, and it’s getting better.”
Things are looking up for Tampa Bay. The chemistry is good, and the Bucs are 2-0 in the standings. But most of the players realize that the Bucs will reap the real benefits of building a great camaraderie when they are faced with adversity at some point this season. That’s when the players will lean on each other the most.
“It’s big because you’re going to have some ups and downs,” said Kelly. “Right now is a good time, but you never know when the bad times are going to come. You definitely need each other, in the good times and the bad. That’s what camaraderie is all about.”
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