In Tampa, Fla., where the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are training for the third straight year at their magnificent $35 million complex. There's no mistaking the venue. The state-of-the-art facility, which opened in 2006, is fronted by a giant backlit steel-and-glass football, and flapping in the muggy Florida breeze is the largest flying non-American flag (more than 7,200 square feet) decorated with the franchise's skull-and-crossbone logo.
Remember: Tampa Bay went 3-13 in '09, then 10-6 in '10, with half of those victories coming on fourth-quarter comebacks engineered by Freeman. There's a different vibe when he's out there and you can feel it. The 6-foot-6, 248-pounder is a big-bodied, big-armed playmaker who is revered by every person -- young and old; locker room or board room -- in the building. A Ben Roethlisberger minus the knucklehead factor, if you will.
"Without a doubt, it's all about [No.] 5," said 15-year veteran cornerback Ronde Barber. "I've been doing this a while and I've never been around an offense with a dynamic quarterback who wins games by himself. He does that."
Last year, Tampa Bay became the first team since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970 (excluding the '87 strike season) to start at least 10 different rookies and finish with a winning record. Running back LeGarrette Blount and wide receiver Mike Williams were the first teammates to lead all rookies in rushing and receiving yards in 42 years. Note: Freeman is younger than both.
If Tampa Bay is going to upgrade its weak pass rush and a run defense that gave up 131.7 yards per game, McCoy needs to be the alpha dog of a starting front four expected to average less than 23 years old. "I learned that I can't be Warren Sapp. Warren Sapp was one of a kind," McCoy said. "I can only be me and I promise you I will give the very best that Gerald McCoy has to give."
Despite being a reported $59 million under the salary cap, the Buccaneers signed one unrestricted free agent from another team -- a punter, no less -- choosing instead to focus on re-signing the bulk of their own players. So the stranger in the building who figures to provide the biggest impact just might be new defensive line coach Keith Millard.
An assistant with Denver ('01-04) and Oakland ('05-08), Millard brings the same ferocious, no-nonsense attitude that made him NFL Defensive Player of the Year with Minnesota in 1989, when he set a league record for sacks by a tackle with 18, a mark that still stands. Millard pulls no punches. On McCoy's play last year: "It wasn't good. He knows that." On the expectations of that inexperienced defensive front. "Youth is no excuse."
Millard is charged with grooming a unit that accounted for just 26 sacks last season (30th in the league). "They may be young, but the expectations we have are high, very high," Millard said. "They will have to produce, and we made that clear when they walked in the door."
Unlike 2010, coming off that 3-13 mark, the Buccaneers won't have the benefit of a last-place schedule. The '11 slate features seven games against teams that reached the playoffs last year, including NFC South rivals Atlanta and New Orleans twice each, plus the club's first visit to Lambeau Field since 2005 to play the Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers. Tampa Bay, the league's only team to have all home games blacked out on local television, has just seven dates at Raymond James Stadium. The eighth was scooped up by the league office to pit the Buccaneers against the NFC runner-up Chicago Bears at London's Wembley Stadium on Oct. 23.