TAMPA, Fla. — The whole thing started well enough, with a horn sounding over the field at 4:29 p.m. and fans dressed in Tampa Bay Buccaneers gear cheering the Lovie Smith era’s start in full, the dark memories of MRSA and the 0-8 start and the rest of last season’s Twilight Zone buried.
It was supposed to be a drama-free, good-feelings Friday afternoon at One Buc Place, with the products of an aggressive offseason overhaul on display and the first steps taken toward a brighter future.
Oh, that’s the way training camp’s beginning is supposed to feel. It’s no different than a lazy afternoon on the opening day of the Grapefruit League, when "what ifs" become "why nots" with enough desire, optimism and can-do faith in a better tomorrow. Glitches aren’t supposed to be part of the plan.
Then came the first clap of thunder at 4:34 p.m., shortly after Smith walked through the Bucs’ stretch lines with a smile while wearing a white long-sleeved shirt and a red-and-white cap. Then came more horns sounding into the thick air at 4:39 p.m., followed by players and coaches jogging off the field for cover below navy blue clouds at the start of a lightning delay. Then came the press release emailed at 4:55 p.m. titled, "BUCCANEERS, CARL NICKS MUTUALLY PART WAYS."
Start, stop, a 252-word release praising the two-time Pro Bowl guard, another lightning strike just before 6 p.m., then finally a re-start at 6:30 p.m. before practice ended about a half hour later. The day was jarring, full of reminders that all best intentions can’t account for random acts of nature, from the sky or otherwise.
"Carl was an elite player," Bucs general manager Jason Licht said, his team walking back onto the field behind him after the delay. "Sometimes, these prideful, elite players — if they don’t feel they’re 100 percent, they don’t want to expose themselves. … He wants to give us his best, and he felt he couldn’t be honest with us unless he was giving us his 100 percent."
The new Bucs began their life Friday. Yet, memories of the old weren’t far behind, with Nicks’ decision to "step away from the game" after attempting to work back from surgery on his MRSA-infected left foot. Parts of this day felt much like the surreal hours of 2013, when Murphy’s Law became the Bucs’ Way for much of September and October.
In all likelihood, the Bucs knew Nicks’ departure could come any time. As the months passed, the player’s absence from public view at the facility — aside from his appearance at the mandatory minicamp in June — was a bad sign. Licht called the possibility of Nicks playing this season a "bonus for us," though it’s obvious he and Smith were prepared for the opposite reality.
The outcome for Nicks, who played just nine games in two seasons with Tampa Bay, is unfortunate no matter how it’s analyzed. An imposing figure at 6-foot-5, 349 pounds, he sustained two strange injuries to his left foot — a torn plantar plate in his big toe in 2012 and the MRSA-infected blister on the side of the foot in 2013 — that halted a career that produced Pro Bowl honors in 2010 and 2011.
He becomes another example that NFL life, even for the elites, is fleeting.
"I honestly say (guard) Davin Joseph and Carl Nicks helped transform my game," Bucs defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said. "Davin has been pushing me ever since I was a rookie. And then when Carl Nicks was able to come in, being what I thought was the best guard in football, he was able to help me take my game to another level. So you just hate to see what happens with him. Great teammate. Always smiling."
In reality, the Bucs had long moved on from Nicks and the former offensive line in which he was supposed to be a star. Joseph is gone. Tackle Donald Penn is gone. Center Jeremy Zuttah is gone. The evolution is underway.
Nicks’ absence in minicamp had given new-look options at guard a chance to develop, players like Oniel Cousins, Patrick Omameh and Jamon Meredith. For one man, hope ends. For others, opportunity begins.
"Carl is a great guy personally," Omameh said. "When he was healthy, he was a great player. I watched a lot of tape on him. … That’s what he wants. That’s him and his family — that’s best for him. I support him in whatever he wanted to do."
"Carl is a great player," Meredith said. "I had utmost respect for him. I love him as a player. I liked watching him. I learned a lot from him. But he went down two times before in the past, and we were able to bounce back. … I think we’ll be OK."
The Bucs’ success on offense depends on them being better than OK. Despite all the talk of the "Dunkaneers" and "Triple Towers," despite all the optimism for a deep running back corps headlined by Doug Martin, none of it will reach its potential with an offensive line that leaks.
The big guys up front have been an area of worry since Smith’s introduction. The Bucs have made themselves better in so many ways since January: on the sidelines and in the secondary, at quarterback and at wide receiver. Still, the offensive line, if faulty, will derail so many of the visions within coordinator Jeff Tedford’s scheme.
"It’s a shame we didn’t get a chance to work with him on the football field," Smith said of Nicks. "But Carl worked hard this summer to get back, and sometimes, your body just won’t allow you to do that."
And sometimes, the best plans fail because of unforeseen reasons.
For as much blame as former general manager Mark Dominik deserves for the poor job he did here, Nicks’ Bucs career shouldn’t be part of it. Who could have predicted the plantar plate injury? The MRSA?
Nicks, at the time, was a smart signing. But like cornerback Eric Wright’s flameout before him, Nicks becomes an unfortunate footnote on the legacy of the big-ticket 2012 free-agency class. Only wide receiver Vincent Jackson has panned out.
On an afternoon of rebirth, on a day when Smith was eager to study his new creation on that manicured grass, the bad old feelings returned. There won’t be many more repeats of this day if the new coach succeeds.
Saturday, hopefully drier, will bring another afternoon of work. One more day will be placed between the new era and the old pain the Bucs want to leave behind.