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Ask any NFL head coach what the most important part of preparation for a regular season game is and they'll tell you practice.
Each team prepares differently, but the importance of practice remains the same. The teams that practice well during the week typically play well on Sunday. The teams that don't practice well usually don't achieve the desired results on game day.
The 0-6 Tampa Bay Buccaneers have a lot of problems. Not only have they dropped six games (10 straight dating back to the 2008 season), four of the Bucs' six losses have come by more than one score, including a 24-0 shutout to the New York Giants.
How can the Bucs remedy some of the issues they have had on the football field? It starts in practice, which has been far from perfect for Tampa Bay this season.
"You see some players out there [on the practice field] that are really tired of losing," said Bucs defensive end Jimmy Wilkerson, who leads the team in sacks with five. "You can just see it on their face that they're tired of losing, so their focus is at an extreme high. Then you have some guys out there that really don't understand what it takes to be mentally prepared and mentally focused. If you don't do it well on the practice field you're going to make those same mistakes on game day."
Bucs head coach Raheem Morris holds physical practices, having the players sport shoulder pads on Wednesday and Thursdays. He has seen flashes from players, but is looking for more consistency on the fields of One Buccaneer Place.
For example, Morris praised his team for what he deemed "our best practice of the regular season" as the Bucs prepared for the Washington Redskins. That praise was unsolicited. This is worth noting because Morris hasn't publicly praised the team for a solid practice again since that date, which was Sept. 30.
"Based on the practice we just had, it might have been one of the best we've had all season," Morris said nearly one month ago. "That's all we can do, try to practice as best as we can, go play as hard as we can and let the results fall where they may.
"The tempo. How we prepared. We had the pads on the whole practice. I should say it was the best practice we had on a Wednesday during the season because it kind of felt like one of those training camp practices where you come off the field feeling really good about each other. We were feeling really good about ourselves and how fast we just practiced and the tempo of the practice; the intensity of the practice; the demeanor of how they were in the team meeting today; how they approached their individual meetings; how they approached their on-the-field play. And it's all about a young team. The hardest part about a young team is getting them to maintain that, so we've got to come out tomorrow and do it or it means nothing."
Now, this is not to say Tampa Bay hasn't turned in a good practice this month, but the Bucs haven't been able to maintain that type of production in practice, which has hindered their efforts on game days. The problems are widespread.
The defense certainly is no exception. Although some of the team leaders have noticed progress, the Bucs defense still ranks 27th in the NFL.
"I've seen improvement, but there's definitely been weeks where we didn't practice well enough," said Bucs middle linebacker Barrett Ruud. "I don't think there's any doubt about that, and I think we all knew it, too. I think most of us came off the field and thought, ‘That wasn't good enough.' The positive thing is I think we have been improving each week in the way we've been preparing and practicing. We have to stay positive. We have 10 more games, and we have to keep improving each week. The only way to do that is to practice better."
Bucs center Jeff Faine, a team captain, missed several weeks of practice due to a triceps injury he sustained in a Week 1 loss to the Dallas Cowboys.
Highly respected and considered one of Tampa Bay's best players, Faine had the opportunity to watch practice from the sideline and didn't necessarily like what he saw, or what he's seen since he returned to action last week.
"Our practices have been up and down, and we need to make them more consistent," said Faine. "I think there's a lot of merit to the way you practice is the way you play. We have to go out there and keep improving in practices and games. We have to stop making so many mistakes. That's the bottom line."
What types of mistakes is Faine referring to? It's the same ones that have carried over to games, including penalties, dropped passes and blown assignments and coverages, to name a few.
"It's a mix of everything," said Faine. "It's a combination of mistakes made, penalties made. It's a combination of youthfulness and a bunch of guys playing together that haven't played together over an extended period of time. We have to play almost perfect. We have to play where we're not killing ourselves with penalties, turnovers and blown assignments. A lot of those mistakes are being made at key times in games. The good news is we can control and correct all of those things, but it all starts on the practice field."
While the players Pewter Report talked to about Tampa Bay's practices were critical of their teammates, and in some cases themselves, one thing that isn't in question is the team's effort.
"There's a lot of effort in practice," said Bucs guard Davin Joseph. "You can see it from the players and the coaches. The coaches have done a good job of changing up the practices and making improvements within themselves. I think the players have received the coaching better and went about the adjustments the right way. I know it might sound crazy, but I think you can see some of the improvements from Week 1 to now. Where we're really lacking is consistency."
Morris has fallen under heavy criticism after Tampa Bay's 0-6 start. At 33, he is the youngest head coach in the NFL. Morris and his coaching staff were critical of themselves when the Bucs fired offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski just two weeks before the start of the regular season and promoted quarterbacks coach Greg Olson, whose offense ranks 28th in the NFL.
Like Olson, Bucs defensive coordinator Jim Bates isn't lacking experience. He had successful tenures in Miami and Green Bay. But his Tampa Bay defense has allowed eight plays of 40-plus yards in the passing game, and currently ranks 31st against the run.
Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart was part of a Carolina ground game that produced 267 yards vs. Tampa Bay en route to a 28-21 win over the Bucs last Sunday. Stewart's comments after the game certainly weren't a glowing endorsement for the Bucs players or coaching staff.
"They were giving us a lot of room up the field. A couple of runs felt like it was in practice," Stewart said of playing the Bucs on Sunday. "That's how much we emphasized the running game this week. The offensive line did a tremendous job."
While Jagodzinski was deemed incompetent, the players went out of their way this week to defend Tampa Bay's coaching staff, including Morris and Bates.
"The coaches put us in position, we just need to make the plays," said Bucs defensive end Stylez G. White. "If the coaches call an eight-man front, we need to stop the run, period. Each player has to accept responsibility and play football."
Win or lose, players and coaches will be praised and criticized as one for the most part. After starting 0-6, the Bucs are emphasizing the importance of sticking together.
"Yeah, they [have us prepared]. The coaching staff is here grinding away," said Ruud, the team's leading tackler. "We haven't gotten it done yet, coaches or players, but that's our goal. Winning in the NFL is tough, and we're proving that this year. Sometimes you take it for granted. When you're on good teams and you're playing well, winning is easy. When you lose you find some character. We're staying positive and we're still working hard."
Some of the consistency issues can be linked to Tampa Bay's roster, which is littered with young and inexperienced players. In fact, the team is one of the youngest in the NFL.
Several players, including quarterback Josh Johnson, left guard Jeremy Zuttah, linebackers Geno Hayes and Quincy Black and safety Sabby Piscitelli, are first-year starters in the NFL.
The Bucs have done a decent job of not making excuses for their poor start, but some legitimate circumstances have impacted the team.
"Everybody understands [the importance of practice], but it's the reality of being a young team at times," said Bucs wide receiver Michael Clayton. "We need to play smart and we want to expedite the process as much as possible."
But not all of Tampa Bay's problems can be attributed to the younger players on the team. Clayton, for example, has seven dropped passes through six games. The former first-round pick is in his sixth season in the league, and QB Josh Johnson, a second-year player, is highly respected by coaches and teammates for his film study habits.
"There's young guys that practice as well as anybody out there," said Ruud. "We have scout team guys that practice very well. I don't think it's just that. I think it's a matter of each person being individually accountable in practice. You have to go out there and remind yourself that you're trying to improve each time you go out on that field. That's the key. A lot of that comes with experience, but that also comes from each individual person saying, ‘Hey, I've got to get better today and I've got to find a way to do it.' We're not there yet, but we're getting closer."
Individual accountability was a sentiment echoed throughout the locker room at One Buccaneer Place this week. So was playing with a sense of urgency, which the veterans believe some of the younger players aren't doing enough.
"They just don't understand how valuable each play is," said White. "On any given play you can win or lose the game. A lot of guys lose sight of that.
"Why aren't we executing? That question isn't just up to me. Each of us has to answer that question and be honest with ourselves. I feel like I can do more within the defense to help out more. It's up to everyone else in this locker room to feel the same way."
White is a player that doesn't take playing in the NFL for granted. He spent time on practice squads in Washington, New Orleans, Tennessee, Atlanta and Tampa Bay before playing in the Arena Football League. The Bucs gave him another chance in 2007, and he's tried to make the most of it, notching 13 sacks from 2007-08.
White, who has just one sack this season but leads the team in quarterback hurries, knows how short one's NFL career can potentially be.
"I don't think the younger guys … I hurt when we lose," said White. "I don't feel good when we lose, whether it's by one point or one thousand. I don't feel good about losing, period. I hate it. I don't know. There just seems to be a different mindset there."
Bucs running back Cadillac Williams has received tremendous praise for his performances in practice. In fact, his hard work in practice is what played an integral role in Williams convincing the Bucs to abandon their 2-2-1 plan and basically make him Tampa Bay's feature running back.
A former first-round pick, Williams worked his way back from two torn patellar tendon injuries in as many seasons. His career nearly ended. Williams is a walking example of how your next play in the NFL could be your last. That's a message the 2005 NFL Rookie of the Year has tried to convey to the team's younger players this season.
"With the young players, and I used to be one, sometimes you don't really seize the moment," said Williams. "Sometimes I think the younger players think, ‘Well, I have the next game or the next year, or maybe next time.' When you do that you really don't seize the moment. It's really important to play snap-by-snap and day-by-day. Me personally, I was a guy that was sky high on top of the NFL one day and at rock bottom the next not knowing what tomorrow holds. I'm walking proof of how important it is for players to seize the moment because you don't know when it could be your last."
With each mounting loss, some of the Bucs veterans believe the younger and older players are finally starting to grasp the reality of the situation and the importance practicing well on a consistent basis.
"They're learning," Joseph said of the younger players. "It's hard. It's really hard. Sometimes, even as veterans, you take winning for granted and forget how hard it is to actually win a game. You also forget how small things can really impact a game. We're learning the hard way right now.
"I think some of the younger guys have seen on tape how close we actually are to winning games. I think they've also seen how one play can really make a big impact, good or bad, so you've seen some guys start to dial in and take that to practice."
Longest Current Losing Streaks In NFL The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have lost 10 straight games dating back to the 2008 regular season. The Bucs are just 1-13 during that stretch if you count the team's 2009 preseason (1-3).
As promised, Pewter Report will keep this chart going as long as the Bucs remain winless in 2009. Tampa Bay currently ranks second in the NFL for the longest losing streak in regular season play behind only the St. Louis Rams.
Tampa Bay's longest losing streak in franchise history came from 1976-77 when the Bucs started 0-26.