The Buccaneers train less than a mile from Raymond James Stadium, not far from the corner of Martin Luther King and Dale Mabry. It took me nearly four hours to drive from Jacksonville to Tampa -- I took Highway 95 to 4 and hit some traffic and a few thunderstorms -- so I was very happy to arrive at the large black gates at One Buccaneers Place. I've been coming to Tampa for awhile now. The first time I ever covered a regular season game, Jerry Rice went down with a torn ACL (courtesy of a hard tackle by Warren Sapp) and Steve Young with a concussion (after being chased down by Derrick Brooks). Tony Dungy coached the Bucs, Steve Mariucci the 49ers. Twelve years passes quickly.
1. New coach Raheem Morris and new defensive coordinator Jim Bates are spending a large part of camp trying to maximize the Bucs pass rush. Bates says he will blitz more than his predecessor, Monte Kiffin, who was often able to create pressure with just his front four. Kiffin, of course, had guys like Sapp and Simeon Rice. The question for the 2009 Bucs is, do they have the personnel to get to the quarterback? "These guys are being compared to those guys," Morris said. "It's been unfair to them, but they've got to come into their own. That's part of the process we're talking about. You're not the young guy you were in '07 when you were second team. Now, you've got a chance to be first. You've got a chance to help put your face on the stadium." Defensive end Gaines Adams, a rookie in 2007 and now in his third season, fits that scenario as well as anyone.
2. Whoever the Buccaneers choose to be their starting quarterback will say a lot about the style of offense they will run. Byron Leftwich is big and strong, but he's not very mobile. Luke McCown is two inches shorter and 30 pounds lighter than Leftwich, but he's much more nimble in and out the pocket. Rookie Josh Freeman might have the best attributes of both veterans -- size and mobility. Freeman also has history with Morris. Both were at Kansas State in 2006, Morris as the team's defensive coordinator and Freeman as a freshman quarterback. "The better Josh gets, the better [the veteran quarterbacks] will get," Morris said. "If they're being pushed and they beat this kid out, you've probably got a pretty good quarterback. If [Freeman] comes in, steps up and beats them out, then, hey, that's what we talked about -- the young guys stepping up and emerging."
3. For a player no longer with the team, Derrick Brooks remains a teacher and a motivating force for the Buccaneers. He spent 14 seasons in Tampa, becoming the face of the franchise, and he still gives information to his former teammates. "He texted me the night before camp," Ronde Barber said laughing. "He was like, 'You need to tell the guys this.' I was like, 'He's still here. The shadow is still here.' We all love Derrick. He's still involved."
Linebacker Barrett Ruud calls Brooks "The Don." "The Don actually texted me," Ruud said. "Our trainer, Todd Toriscelli, was saying how there are heat warnings and how Derrick used to wear rubber suits under his pads. The Don taught me well. I still think of Derrick quite a bit."
Jermaine Phillips, who once replaced John Lynch at safety, is tabbed to replace Brooks at linebacker. Tough duty.
For a team with an unsettled quarterback position, tight end Kellen Winslow's health, production and happiness take on even greater importance. This is already Winslow's sixth season in the league, and he's squeezed a lifetime of highs and lows into that period: a broken leg in his rookie season in Cleveland, a motorcycle accident in his second, a trip to the Pro Bowl in his fourth, a staph infection in his fifth. New offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinksi likes to run the football, but that could open up opportunities for Winslow if defenses stack the line. At an athletic 6-foot-4, 240 pounds, he must be accounted for. "This is a zone-schemed offense and we go with the play action off of that," Winslow said. "It is not a complicated offense. I really like it and a lot of the guys really like it. We're excited about it."
Cornerback E.J. Biggers is similar to many late-round NFL picks, a player trying to gain a roster spot while learning on the fly. Biggers, taken in the seventh round out of Western Michigan, made 40 starts in college and earned a reputation as a physical defensive back. "I see a young man starting to come around," Morris said. "He's starting to figure some things out and knowing when to pull his trigger, knowing what to do, how to do it, wanting to make plays, becoming greedy. We like angry, greedy workers."
Walking into the lobby of the Bucs practice facility, I was struck by the colorful scene before me. The orange and white helmets the team first wore in the 1970s. A large photo of Doug Williams, dropping back to pass. At the front of the room, nine life-sized pewter statues recalled Tampa's Super Bowl victory following the 2002 season: Jon Gruden, Barber, Brooks, Brad Johnson, Mike Alstott, Shelton Quarles, Lynch, Sapp and Rice, each in various forms of celebration. (Only Barber remains on the roster). Gruden is throwing an upper cut in exaltation. Brooks is regal. Sapp's mouth is open. It's a perfect snapshot of a team's run to a title.
• Tampa's running backs corps is unconventional, but it just might be underrated, too. Earnest Graham and Derrick Ward (a free-agent signing from the Giants) are two players accustomed to being successful while sharing the load. Cadillac Williams, after two seasons battling knee injuries, is showing some early zip in camp. "I think we have a group here that can really finish the NFL season strong," Graham said.
• Ruud could be the best middle linebacker in football this season. He'll have to take on an even bigger leadership role in 2009 for the Bucs to succeed, and he knows it. "As soon as the huddle starts, it is my defense and I know I have to make all the calls and organize everything," Ruud said. "I'm still not a big talker in the locker room in front of the team, but when we step on the field, it is my defense."
• Morris has been stressing physical play in camp, even showing his team game film of Buccaneers against certain opponents. One was film of Tampa Bay against Carolina. "In '02, if you remember, we had a real battle down there," Morris said. "That's a great part of being around here for seven years before you become the head coach. You can talk about the stuff you remember. We walked out of that game and we all felt that kind of pushed us to the Super Bowl that year."
• The Buccaneers were not awarded a Monday night game this season, but they still have an interesting showcase game: Oct. 25, v. the New England Patriots, in London.