SR’s Fab 5 is a collection of inside scoop, analysis and insight from yours truly, PewterReport.com publisher and Bucs beat writer Scott Reynolds. Here are a few things that caught my attention this week at One Buc Place and around the NFL:
FAB 1. SHEPARD IS BUCS’ HYPE MAN
Sometimes you can read too much into a quote, and I was guilty of that this summer back in Bucs training camp. I was preparing PewterReport.com’s 53-Man Bucs Roster Projection before Tampa Bay’s preseason opener at Philadelphia and knowing how much the team wanted Kenny Bell, the fifth-round pick in 2015, to be the team’s speed receiver and gunner, I projected him making the team over Russell Shepard.
What a mistake.
Bell fumbled the opening kickoff, which would kick off his disastrous preseason, which would get him kicked off the roster. Meanwhile, Shepard had a great game, scored a touchdown pass and cemented his spot on the roster for a third straight year.
Weeks later he would be named Tampa Bay’s special teams captain for the second straight year.
“That’s one of the biggest honors you can get in this league,” Shepard said. “It’s truly your peers, it’s the guys that you come here, you work with every day, the guys you admire, the guys that look up to you, so it’s truly an honor.”
Back in training camp, Bucs head coach Dirk Koetter told the media:
“I said before, Shep’s one of those guys that I find myself wanting to write him off as a wide receiver and look at him as a special teams only player. And Shep’s one of those guys you can’t wear him out. You can’t wear the kid out. He just hangs in there, hangs in there, hangs in there and he’s been making a few plays.”
Bucs WR Russell Shepard – Photo by: Getty Images
I had a momentary lapse of reason, and foolishly, I listened to Koetter’s words and wrote Shep off, too. I regrettably forgot his true value to the team, which isn’t just running down to cover kicks and punts, as he has done so well since arriving in Tampa Bay in 2013, and serve as a fill-in wide receiver, as he did last week at San Francisco catching five passes for 77 yards and a touchdown.
Shep is the Bucs’ hype man. He’s the fire-starter. It’s not just Jameis Winston that gets the Pewter Pirates going on game days. It starts in the locker room with Shepard’s animated pre-game rants.
“Those speeches – he’s just being himself,” said Bucs linebacker Kwon Alexander, who played at Shepard’s alma mater. “That comes from LSU. We’re used to giving and hearing speeches like that to hype us up, but all of his speeches come from the heart. They really mean something to us when we hear Shep talk. We play hard for him.
“All of them get me hyped. It’s kind of like pre-game music, but it’s just him talking and speaking from the heart. He gets us hyped and we take what he says out there on the field and we run with it.”
Right before Tampa Bay’s preseason game against Cleveland Koetter told his players to take the chains off this season, to play free and speak freely. Shepard was given the green light to continue to address the team before games in the locker room, but it wasn’t always that way.
Shepard’s passionate pre-game pleas are sometimes rated R and contain profanity. For some reason, Shepard’s pre-game message got a little too salty for former head coach Lovie Smith’s liking last December 13 right before the then 6-6 Buccaneers were about to play at home in a critical game against the New Orleans Saints.
As I wrote in a previous edition of SR’s Fab 5, Smith had heard enough and interrupted Shepard’s speech to shut it down. The fact that one of the most well-liked and well-respected Bucs – a team captain – was essentially knee-capped by Smith didn’t sit well with some of Shepard’s teammates. Smith wasn’t exactly in-touch with his players to begin with and that began to cause a divide within the organization.
Bucs WR Russell Shepard – Photo courtesy of the Buccaneers
The powers that be within the organization didn’t look too favorably on Smith’s action and that was one of many factors in his dismissal at the end of the season.
It was poor coaching. It wasn’t the right time or place to inject morality just minutes before the Bucs were to take the field and play their biggest game of the season. Instead of being hyped by Shepard, Smith had buzz-killed his own team. The Bucs took the field flat and were quickly down 14-0. Tampa Bay lost to New Orleans, 24-17 and began a four-game losing skid to end the season.
“That’s different coaches for you, but we have a different coach now,” Alexander said. “Shep is free now. We have a coach that wants people to express their feelings. When Shep talks it hits people differently, and he’s hit me right in my heart and lifts me up. He’s got to keep doing it.”
Shepard acknowledged Smith’s interruption last year, but said he feels better about addressing the team under Koetter’s watch.
“It’s different with this head coach,” Shepard said. “That’s one of the benefits of this coach and what he brings to the organization. He allows his players to create the personality of the team. Dirk does his job of coaching us and putting us in the best position to make plays, but there’s a thin line between overstepping your bounds from a head-coaching standpoint. It’s kind of tricky, and Dirk does a great job of allowing us to be the men and the team that we want to be. That’s what I love about him.”
The feeling is mutual, and Koetter was asked this week who is more passionate on game days, Winston or Shepard?
“That’s a good question,” Koetter said. “Both, they’re both very passionate. We should put that to a vote in the locker room sometime, that would be a good one.”
New Bucs offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach Todd Monken loves Shepard’s attitude as much as he loves his playmaking ability.
“Shep’s fun to be around,” Monken said. “He brings great energy, attitude, body language, he’s got a certain edge to him. So, he’s definitely one of our vocal leaders in our locker room. And he brings it every day. It’s one thing to say it, it’s another to do it and he does it every day.”
Before the Carolina game Shepard had a special message for his injury-depleted team before a critical game on Monday Night Football.
“He says some crazy things and uses some words … I don’t want to say what he said on the record,” Bucs defensive tackle Akeem Spence said. “But he gets us going hard with his message. Before Carolina he was telling us to be dogs. He’s a dog on special teams and he’s a dog on offense when he gets the chance. We were down a lot of guys – a lot of starters. He was telling the young guys to be dogs out there. He said a lot of the starters weren’t coming to play and that we had to go out and get it done. That was big, man.
“Then he goes out and recovers the fumble on the punt. Shep talks it and then he backs it up. He’s the first gunner down on special teams. He’s like the bully on offense. He’ll play any position on offense that Dirk asks him to play. He’s good for our team and a great locker room guy.”
Shepard’s pre-game speech against San Francisco last week was his most personal to date. After catching his first NFL touchdown against his former head coach, Chip Kelly, last year in Tampa Bay’s big, 45-17 win at Philadelphia, Shepard was fired up to play against him again.
“I made it personal and I asked guys for their help,” Shepard said. “Regardless of the outcome of the game, this guy tried to take away my livelihood [by cutting me in Philadelphia]. I have a lot of respect for Chip Kelly because he gave me my first chance to play this game, but at the same time, sometimes you need a little extra motivation and the guys promised me they would give everything to me. We were down early, but we kept fighting and got the win.”
Bucs WR Russell Shepard – Photo by: Getty Images
The Bucs came back to beat the 49ers, 34-17. Shepard had his best day as an NFL receiver, catching a career-high five passes for 77 yards and his second career touchdown.
“Whatever’s on Shep’s mind that day were hear,” Alexander said. “He really meant what he said on Sunday and we went out there and played for him. He went out there and did his thing and proved that he can play in this league as a receiver. Nobody should ever get doubted that they can play in this league. Shep is a great person and a great player.
“He backs up what he says. He’s got heart. A lot of people would be scared to go talk in front of the whole team, but not him. Then he goes out there and plays like he does and he’s a captain and he has our respect. He makes plays and does his job. We’re all behind Shep 100 percent.”
Koetter was excited to see Shepard respond with a big game in San Francisco, filling in for starting receiver Vincent Jackson, who was placed on injured reserve with a torn ACL during the bye week.
“Shep, he made some big plays,” Koetter said. “The biggest play he made – he had three explosives – but the play of the day for him was that third-and-5 right before the half when we’d ran it on the first couple downs and then we just ran that little in-route and the guy was all over him and he made a great catch. And then we went in the two-minute [offense], hit him again on the next play and then eventually he scored the touchdown. But his biggest catch was a 6-yard gain.”
Spence likes the way Shepard plays the game and backs up his talk on the field.
“He has a defensive mentality,” Spence said. “He doesn’t care what it takes, he gets the job done. He shows that on special teams fighting, scratching and clawing to get downfield as a gunner to make sure he downs the ball or recovers a fumble. That’s why he’s out there. He definitely stepped up last week when called upon on offense with some great catches and a touchdown. It’s a testament to the player he is.
“That’s the type of player he is on special teams every week and he showed it on offense against his former coach in Philly. He gave us that message before the game about that guy, the guy that doubted him and said he wasn’t going to be much in the league. He’s definitely proven him wrong already.”
When asked if Shepard was the most versatile player in Tampa Bay, Koetter nodded in agreement.
“Yeah, I’d say that’s a strong case,” Koetter said. “He does a lot for us, he wears a lot of hats and if he had his way, he’s be wearing more hats. He’s asking for everything. He’d like to throw it, catch it, run with it, tackle it, kick it. But no, he’s a versatile guy. High school quarterback went to LSU there, and Shep brings a certain presence to our locker room. He’s very vocal and guys that are vocal and can back it up with good play are always welcome in your locker room.”
Winston is not surprised that Shepard stepped up when needed, but knows that he won’t be assigned to full-time wide receiver duty because of his tremendous value on special teams as a gunner.
Bucs WR Russell Shepard – Photo by: Getty Images
“He’s really our best all-around guy,” Winston said. “He does so many different things. This is football, but we can’t kill our players. We’ve got to make sure he’s rested and he’s in there a lot. I’m not a coach, I’m just a player – I know he’s one of our best players and I know he has tremendous heart, but Shep is over there dying half of the time. He’s different. He can run down, sprint full speed down there to cover a kick, then come out there and catch a touchdown. That’s different. Guys don’t do that, guys will say, ‘I’m winded,’ guys will say, ‘Give me one,’ and he’s not that guy.”
Shepard is the ultimate role player. He’s a part-time receiver, but a full-time special teams demon, captain, leader and fire-starter. On game days it all starts with the Bucs’ hype man inside the locker room.
“You can not only hear the passion, but feel the passion,” Bucs long snapper Andrew DePaola said. “I don’t know if he’s really talking to us or to himself, but his love of the game runs very deep. This is very personal for him. The guys love it when he talks and they ask for it. He gets us pumped up and hyped up. He provides that spark for us. That’s him being a leader and a captain.”
Shepard’s speeches aren’t scripted. They aren’t planned. They are spontaneous and in the moment.
The Bucs’ first quarter success doesn’t depend on what Shepard says. After all, Tampa Bay trailed San Francisco 14-0 in the first quarter before scoring 27 unanswered points.
“It’s an emotional game,” Shepard said. “It’s such a tricky game that the smallest things can throw you off or get you started. I think our guys do a good job of taking my message. It’s something that if I had a choice I wouldn’t do it all the time, but the guys ask for it. It’s something that comes out naturally and the guys accept it well.”
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
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