Kellen Winslow was arguably Tampa Bay's biggest acquisition of the offseason, but Bucs fans wouldn't have known judging by preseason statistics alone.
The Bucs traded their 2008 second-round pick to Cleveland in exchange for Winslow, who signed a new, six-year, $36 million contract with Tampa Bay during the offseason.
Winslow received little playing time in preseason. In fact, he did not catch a single pass, but Bucs head coach Raheem Morris cautioned people against reading too much into preseason game plans.
"It's never intentional," Morris said. "You just don't see a lot of Kellen, period, in a preseason game. You don't see a lot of Jerramy [Stevens], you don't see a lot of any of those guys really, except for the offensive line because they played a little bit for those quarterbacks so we could get that competition out of the way. But we see a lot of those guys at practice, we see a lot of those guys in some live stuff at our facilities, so we're looking forward to that.
"You just don't game-plan in the preseason. You have one mock game plan. During the preseason, you're not going to see a dose of Kellen. You're not going to have your special plays that you would have for Kellen, your special plays that you would have for Antonio Bryant or Michael Clayton or Peanut [Clifton Smith] and all those types of things. But when you go into your normal situation, your normal game plan mode, your practice reflects it, your game plan reflects it, how it looks on your sheet reflects it, how it looks in your head, how you want to get him the ball, who you get the ball to. All that stuff will be reflected in this week's game plan."
When given an opportunity to play, Winslow has proven to be a lethal threat on the football field. The former first-round pick has hauled in 219 career passes for 2,459 yards (11.2 avg.) and 11 touchdowns.
That production came in Cleveland, but it wasn't all smooth sailing for the former Miami Hurricane. Winslow's production was hindered by injuries and overshadowed by off-the-field controversy.
Morris has publicly criticized Winslow, stating that he's seen firsthand how Winslow has gotten himself into some trouble. The first-year head coach, whom Winslow has a great deal of respect for, went as far as privately and publicly challenging Winslow to keep his emotions in check on the football field.
Morris said he's seen improvement from Winslow from a mental toughness standpoint.
"We talked about controlling his emotions in training camp," said Morris. "You're talking about a high-energy guy that can either cause disastrous results by his blowups or cause the team to ride the emotional rollercoaster. We're going to pride ourselves on not riding the emotional rollercoaster up or down.
"We're not going to let negative things pull us in the wrong direction. Kellen has done a great job of getting better and he's done a great job of abiding by what his head coach has asked him to do."
Most of the criticism Morris has dished out to Winslow has been in a playful manner, but Winslow has taken Morris' coaching suggestions seriously.
One example is the fact that Winslow, who missed a few weeks of organized team activities while moving his family to the Tampa Bay area earlier this offseason, was critical of himself — and received some friendly advice from Morris – regarding his conditioning and his need to get re-acclimated to the Florida heat and humidity.
Winslow took it to heart. On Thursday, Morris had his players practice in shorts, jerseys and helmets. However, Winslow elected to practice in full pads.
"Kellen is a full-pad guy," said Morris. "He wants to be as ready as he can for Sunday. He wants to get used to Florida and embrace the heat. He might be buying into what I'm saying too much."
Morris isn't the only one that noticed Winslow going above and beyond the call of duty during Thursday's practice by sporting full pads. His teammates insist the type of work ethic Winslow demonstrated Thursday is the norm, not the exception.
"He comes to work everyday and you can appreciate that," Bucs safety Jermaine Phillips said of Winslow. "When you see him at his locker he's studying the playbook or tape. When we're out there practicing in shorts he's in full pads because that's the way he plays and prepares. He takes every rep like it's his last. He's a great guy and player to have on your team."
While Morris has been critical of Winslow in public and in person, the tight end's teammates don't seem to mind the emotion – or competiveness – he brings to the football field.
"He's a true competitor," said Bucs center Jeff Faine, who was also Winslow's teammate in Cleveland. "He's a guy that requires a lot out of his teammates, but gives a lot as well. It's something where it's almost considered a weakness by some because he's so competitive, but it's really not a weakness. He gets involved 100 percent in everything he's doing and he competes very hard.
"Personally, I don't ever want to contain that emotion as long as it's utilized the right way and in the right situations. That emotion can be dangerous, but in a good way, against our opponent."
Winslow's work ethic has been noticed by all of his coaches and teammates, not just Faine.
"He's been a great teammate," said Bucs wide receiver Michael Clayton. "His work ethic has been everything I expected. He's made plays out here. He's a dynamic player. The things he can do in the open field are amazing for a tight end. He's going to give a lot of people problems and he's really going to help us offensively."
Part of Winslow's frustration in Cleveland stemmed from the Browns' woes, particularly from an offensive standpoint. The Browns had difficulty establishing the running game, which allowed defenses to focus on covering Cleveland's main weapons – Winslow and WR Braylon Edwards.
"When you run the ball they put eight men in the box, and when there are eight men in the box it's either Cover 1 or Cover 3" said Winslow. "When I was Cleveland there were always seven men in the box, playing teams like the Steelers and Ravens. When you put eight in the box it's easier to get down field off play-action and that sort of thing."
But Winslow isn't calling for the ball in Tampa Bay. One of the things he loves about being part of the Bucs offense is how the team plans to run the ball with Cadillac Williams, Derrick Ward, Earnest Graham and Clifton Smith, and call on he and his fellow tight ends and receivers to make plays in the passing game.
"This is a new start for me," said Winslow. "I'm happy here and I love it. I'm just excited. I'm just a piece to the puzzle. Everybody is a piece of the puzzle, and I'm one piece, so I'm just trying to go out there and do my job. We have a lot of talent on this team."
Although expectations for Winslow are high in Tampa Bay, the Bucs believe the former Pro Bowl tight end will benefit from the change of scenery.
"He came here with a blank slate in my mind and in the minds of a lot of guys here," said Clayton. "It's tough enough as a player to make a change. He's married and he has a family. You don't want those problems. It was no different than when David Boston and Antonio Bryant came here. They had reputations in the past. You look for a fresh start. It's up to the captains and the individuals in the locker room to make you feel welcome. We definitely opened him with open arms. Our mentality is keeping it within the family. That's what he's done. He's made a tremendous transition. From the first day you felt comfortable with him and interacting with him. He's found a new home and I think he loves it here, and we love having him here."