TAMPA BAY — I have an irrational fear of getting trapped in the beer freezer at a grocery store (hey, I’m almost 5-foot-3!) and yet here I am, on my own volition, fastened into a 7-foot-tall ice cylinder. From the outside, you can just see my head, as if I’m the human prop in an elaborate magic trick. The thermometer reads -220 degrees. No, that’s not a typo. I wonder if my lips are turning blue, just like those beer cans that change color.
Stan Delva, the Buccaneers’ athletic trainer, asks if I’m OK.
“I feel fantastic!” I say.
I’m lying through my chattering teeth.
Black tube socks cover my hands like mittens, and my arms are hanging by my sides, but I can’t feel them. My feet? Maybe they’ve fallen off, I don’t know. I’m pirouetting in the cylinder, fearful of slipping because I can’t feel my feet, while nitrogen clouds swirl out the tube and around my head. This is the kind of cold that would make a snowman shiver.
You’re only supposed to be in the chamber for two and a half minutes. “Just pick a song you really like and it doesn’t feel that long,” defensive lineman A.J. Francis told me. The 6-foot-5, 330-pound veteran jammed to Chance the Rapper, then stepped out and said, “Damn, I feel great.”
Cryotherapy has been trendy in the NBA for some time, with Kobe Bryant among its proponents. Floyd Mayweather Jr. reportedly jumps into a chamber before fights. “They said LeBron does the cryotank or whatever, and I was like, I need to try this out,” says Tampa Bay quarterback Jameis Winston. “When I heard we were getting three in our facility, I was like, ‘Yes, we just hit the jackpot.’ ”
Two weeks ago, the Buccaneers installed the cryotherapy chambers at their training facility, becoming the third team in the league to do so along with the Cowboys and Saints. Cryotherapy essentially replaces the ritual of cold tubs, and it is far more efficient: two and a half minutes versus 18-20 sitting in a tub.
Extremely cold temperatures are supposed to send the body into survival mode, explains Buccaneers dietician Kevin Luhrs. This causes blood to rush to the most vital organs; the enriched blood then circulates throughout the rest of the body. There isn’t much medical literature about cryotherapy, though anecdotally players have gushed about the benefits such as reduced inflammation. Roughly 35-40 players come in for a session each afternoon, though trainers estimate that number could double by the beginning of the season.
“I literally have guys saying, ‘I’ve never felt better in my life,’ ” Luhrs says.
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Dirk Koetter, 57, is a first-time head coach in the NFL. He inherited the job under awkward circumstances, with the surprise firing of Lovie Smith, but felt he was headed for a top job no matter what.
“As the season ended, with the way the NFL works, I was pretty confident I was going to get a head job this year,” Koetter said.
An offensive coordinator with three NFL teams since 2007, and the former head coach at Arizona State for seven seasons before joining the league, Koetter has a good idea of how he wants to run this team. He suggested minor tweaks in Tampa Bay. For example, he approached general manager Jason Licht and asked, ‘You know that meeting we have every day during training camp? The entire staff and GM? Do you feel like there’s a better way of doing that?’
Licht saw Koetter’s point, and the meeting only occurs a few times a week now, freeing up valuable time.
Though Koetter has a regimented personality, he noticed players enjoyed breakups in the everyday routine. So last week he shifted practice to end 30 minutes earlier. “And they love it when I do something like that,” he says. “They think it’s the coolest thing ever.”
The Buccaneers don’t have an indoor practice facility. Before Koetter took over, the team used to work through the conditions—if the players worked in the heat and humidity of training camp, they would be prepared to play in those elements while visiting teams were not.
“The truth is, that just never proved to be an advantage,” Licht says. Exhaustion led to injuries. “With a mid-day walk-through standing in the heat, we had players that literally got dehydrated from that,” he added. “We had guys who needed IV’s from a walk-through.”
Koetter proposed the change: a walk-through begins at 8:30 p.m. the night before, with installations following the next day. Players are now off the field by 11 a.m.
“And then,” Licht says, “they can get in those cryochambers and get ready for the next day.”
Five Things I Think About the Buccaneers
1) If Dirk Koetter had walked into a defensive meeting room last year, he wouldn’t have known everybody’s name. “There would probably be eight to 10 guys I just didn’t know,” says the Bucs former offensive coordinator turned head coach. Though he needed to get to know the entire team, especially a defense that largely enjoyed playing for Lovie Smith, Koetter assume the helm on terrible terms. GM Jason Licht says that after Smith was fired, offensive and defensive players texted him: “Please, hire Dirk!”
2) One of the reasons Koetter got the head job is because he managed Jameis Winston so well last season, as well as two rookie offensive linemen. Although he won’t have as much of an intimate role, it seems Koetter is still very hands-on with the offense. Since Koetter is going to continue calling plays, he arranges quarterback meetings so that he can spend time in certain parts of them. Koetter has essentially handed the defense off to Mike Smith, the former head coach of the Falcons and Koetter’s old boss. “I think if I didn’t hire Mike and I didn’t trust him the way I do, it might not be like that,” Koetter said. “But I feel very comfortable putting the defense in his hands.”
3) Austin Sefarian-Jenkins may have been a second-round pick in 2014, but as of now he’s running with the second-string. In the practice session we saw on Saturday morning, it was Cameron Brate receiving first-team reps, and plenty of attention, from Winston. The 25-year-old Brate is on his second stint with the Buccaneers, sandwiched by a 2015 season spent on the Saints practice squad. But watching his 6-foot-5 frame navigate through traffic in the end zone on one of two touch down passes from Winston, I wondered how you could keep this guy off the field. He’s going to be a big red-zone target for Winston, and at the very least could help create opportunities for Mike Evans.
4) Winston looks slimmer—and certainly fitter—than he did during his rookie season. But, says Koetter, “He didn’t lose weight. Really, that’s not what it is. His body composition changed.”
5) The biggest area of improvement for this team should be the secondary, which could generously be described as leaky last season (Tampa Bay allowed a 70% completion last season). Though free agent Brent Grimes is 33, he is a Day 1 starter and significant upgrade at corner. The Buccaneers used their first-round pick on Vernon Hargreaves, a rangy but short corner from Florida. There was speculation that Hargreaves may be eased into a starter role opposite Grimes. At the practice we saw, Hargraeves was the first-team nickel.
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