Four Downs: Bucs Return to Normalcy After Irma; Cam Newton Makes Strides

Tampa Bay Buccaneers return to normalcy after Hurricane Irma. Plus notes on Cam Newton, Jaylon Smith and the NFL’s offensive line problems.
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Jameis Winston and the Bucs will make their season debut Sunday against the Bears in Tampa.

Jameis Winston and the Bucs will make their season debut Sunday against the Bears in Tampa.

1. Buccaneers rode out the storm just fine. On Tuesday, when Dirk Koetter convened his team at 6 p.m. ET, 63 of the Bucs’ 64 players (53 on the active roster, 11 on the practice squad) followed along as their head coach delivered a direct message: No one would be feeling sorry for the Bucs. What was left unsaid was that it was a borderline miracle that practically the whole team made it (the one tardy player had a drive that wound up taking 16 hours) there in time to hear it.

How crazy was it getting everyone back? Well, All-Pro defensive tackle Gerald McCoy spent so much time in line at a gas station driving back from Atlanta that he got worried he’d run out, and called GM Jason Licht—about an hour behind McCoy on the way back—to see if Licht could help him with a contingency. Licht then went looking for a hose so he could siphon gas from his car to McCoy’s. McCoy did wind up making it to the pump OK, but what would normally be a 7-hour drive took about 13 hours. So even though Irma didn’t hit Tampa as hard as many had predicted it would, it did make it a monumental challenge for the Bucs to return to the area.

“Our team ops, our player engagement, our COO, they all did such an amazing job of handling the logistical nightmare,” GM Jason Licht said over the phone Wednesday night. “To orchestrate all of this, get everyone out, get everyone safe, then get everyone back, it was incredible. … You go through something like this and to know the resources are in place, with your ownership, it makes you feel good. I know everyone says that about their owners, but (the Glazers) were truly awesome. All the players are saying it today.”

The Glazers chartered five small planes to take those among the staff and players who wanted to go to Charlotte on Saturday, and arranged for all of them to return to Tampa. The Glazers also have put up in hotels the team personnel and families still without power. Meanwhile, much of the legwork fell to COO Brian Ford, senior manager of team operations Tim Jarocki and director of player engagement Duke Preston. They’d come up with contingency plans for practice this week in Minneapolis, Dallas and at the Greenbrier in West Virginia; worked with people like team nutritionist Kevin Luhrs on making sure players were getting what they needed; and then assisted in making sure everyone got back as fast as possible. 

And they were scattered. Players had to get back from Georgia, both Carolinas, Tennessee, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Texas, California, Wyoming, Louisiana, Ohio and Alabama. And tight end Anthony Auclair was in Canada. The Glazers set up charters on Tuesday from a pair of hubs to Tampa, asking players to get to those hubs, to circumvent the effects of the crush of people trying to return to the area. In the end, they somehow got it done in time for Koetter to address the team Tuesday night, which allowed for a relatively normal week ahead of the Bears game on Sunday.

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2. Cam making strides, but not there yet.It’s sometimes said that, after a player goes through ACL surgery, he has to relearn his knee. It’s a way of explaining the process he’ll go through in getting comfortable with a new ligament. That’s not exactly what Cam Newton’s going through right now, but it’s not wholly different either.

Last week, we discussed the coaches’ need to see Newton get out there and really let it rip. Carolina’s 23-3 win over San Francisco proved to the staff that while Newton might not be there yet, he’s well on his way. Newton’s decision-making was good, even if he was late on a couple throws, and missed a couple more. But there were good signs, and maybe the first one actually came on Newton’s second-quarter interception. With Niners defensive end DeForest Buckner coming free and bearing down on him, Newton uncorked one from midfield into the end zone, where Jaquiski Tartt leapt over Kelvin Benjamin for the ball. Newton was late in seeing and throwing that one, but showed confidence in his rehabilitated shoulder in letting it go off his back foot faced with a rusher. Then, in the third quarter, there was a second-and-7 where Newton stood tall in the pocket with the rush closing down and, flat-footed, sent a low frozen-rope into a small window that tight end Greg Olsen found in the deep middle, good for 17 yards. It again showed confidence in his ability to drive the ball.

On the flip side, there were moments where hesitancy cropped up in how he aimed the ball too much, most notably on a second-quarter overthrow to Ed Dickson in the end zone. But given the fact that Newton only threw two passes in the preseason, this was a pretty good start. “Overall,” said one team staffer, “it was very solid.”

3. Jaylon Smith is not all the way back.Or close to it. But the fact that the Dallas linebacker—let’s call him a redshirt freshman—was back out there at all, let alone playing 36 of the team’s 53 defensive snaps last Sunday in a rotation with Justin Durant, is absolutely worth your attention. “His spirit to come back and push through it to play, I think everyone has taken notice of it,” said one club source.

It’s important to remember the kind of player Smith was before suffering nerve damage in his final game at Notre Dame: a linebacker who could rush off the edge and from the middle, cover, play the middle and weakside spots, and seemed borderline unblockable at the end of his career. Smith is not that now. He’s still a ways from getting there, with no guarantee he ever will. But the fact that he can play as he did on Sunday night, making seven tackles and forcing a fumble in a 19-3 win over the Giants, at a fraction of his full capacity as athlete is a pretty good indication of how special a prospect he once was.

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So how did Smith play after the tape was graded? Smith’s instincts are there, and he flashed good straight-line speed and an ability to find the ball, close on the ballcarrier, and arrive at him violently, which is sort of Linebacking 101. He forced the fumble on Giants receiver Sterling Shepard, and made a nice play in pursuit to snuff out a reverse to Shepard later in the game. There was some rust, but some hustle too. After Smith overran New York back Orleans Darkwa in the second quarter, which led to a 12-yard gain, Smith was the one who finally tracked down Darkwa.

Smith’s change of direction and reactionary athleticism aren’t where they once were. As a result, this game he was strictly an off-ball linebacker, which protects him to some degree. But he played the position, and played it well. Given the doubts that Smith could make it this far (I’ll raise my hand there), that much is certainly worth applauding.

4. Offensive line issues persist. You guys want hear me go on about the problems with offensive line play in the NFL again? It didn’t take much to see it coming, after all. Middling linemen were breaking the bank in March (Riley Reiff, Matt Kalil, and Russell Okung all got more than $11 million per year), because teams knew there wasn’t much help coming in the draft; the 2017 draft wound being the first one ever to go without a lineman in the Top 15 picks. Then, high-end linemen (Donald Penn, Duane Brown) saw their value rising and held out. And here we are.

How many potential contenders count their offensive line as a major swing factor in their season? Let’s add them up: Giants, Seahawks, Saints, Broncos, Chargers, Bengals, Cardinals, Lions, Panthers, Vikings … That’s 10, and that’s without counting the rebuilding teams (Jets, Colts) that have their own problems up front. And it’s pretty easy to understand why this is happening.

First, the rise of the spread offense in college has made it so the sure-thing left tackle prospect—one of the safest bets in the draft as recently as a decade ago (Jonathan Ogden, Joe Thomas, etc.)—is borderline extinct, with busts like ex-Ram Greg Robinson and ex-Jaguar Luke Joeckel proof of it. Second, the practice rules have wreaked havoc on the ability of coaches to raise the players once they’re pros, and the issue is particularly glaring with backups, who can’t hit much during the season (only 14 in-season full-pad practices are allowed) and aren’t getting any game action because offensive linemen don’t rotate like defensive linemen do. So in general, it’s become harder to draft them, and harder to develop them, and that led to a whole mess of ugly offensive football on Sunday.

I wouldn’t expect this area to improve a ton as the year goes on, either. In March, we wrote about the group of coaches who made their case at the league meeting for changing the work rules to allow for better player development. Offensive line play should be Exhibit A for their argument.