TAMPA, Fla. — Greg Schiano has had this feeling before. There was a time last year when the newly named Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach stood on the sideline, stared at guards Carl Nicks and Davin Joseph, two bulldozers with four Pro Bowl appearances between them, and thought he could have a special offensive line.
Potential is the possession of each NFL team in July, and Tampa Bay appeared to have a wealth of it last summer with Nicks and Joseph. Nicks, once charged with protecting Drew Brees, signed a five-year, $47.5 million deal that offseason. Joseph, meanwhile, was coming off his second Pro Bowl campaign, seemingly maturing into the player the Bucs envisioned him to be when he was taken 23rd overall in 2006.
“There was a time last year I said that,” Schiano recalled Monday, “and ‘bang, bang.'”
The “bang, bang” represents two flashpoints in Tampa Bay’s 2012 season, both leading to a shuffling of roles on the offensive line. Joseph tore the patellar tendon in his right knee last August in a preseason game against the New England Patriots, ending his season. Then Nicks tore the plantar plate in his left foot, causing him to be placed on injured reserve in late October.
The best-case scenario for the Bucs’ line never lived to see Week 1. By Week 9, both faces of a front-five group that is among the NFL’s best when healthy were gone.
But the “bang, bang” that could have sent Tampa Bay into a tailspin never quite did that. The Bucs finished 4-5 to close the season, 7-9 overall, with both Nicks and Joseph out. Behind Doug Martin’s standout rookie production, and the work of replacements, they finished No. 15 in the league in rush offense with an average of 114.8 yards per game.
For the Bucs, the upcoming season presents a take-two chance with Nicks and Joseph. Both have been common sights at practice, though as Nicks has put it, the Bucs are “babying” each to make sure the road-graders are primed for the regular season.
Protect now. Push later.
“We don’t want to rush back into things and make it worse than it already is,” Nicks said. “I agree with the coaches on taking it slow and integrating me back into the offense. Right now, I’m just kind of taking it slow.”
The absence of both for most of last season was an insight into how the best-laid plans can be scrambled. After he was introduced as part of a celebrated free-agency class that included wide receiver Vincent Jackson and cornerback Eric Wright, Nicks cracked, “We’re not the Big 3 like the Miami Heat. But hey …”
Now, in the second training camp under Schiano, the landscape is different. Jackson has become everything the Bucs expected, leading the team in receiving with 1,384 yards and eight touchdowns last season. But Wright is gone, cut after too many mental blunders.
Meanwhile, Tampa Bay has been cautious with Nicks. (He joined Joseph in walking the sidelines in shorts during Sunday’s practice.) That is the right call for now. In recent days, however, there have been glimpses of what this vision could become, and it is a large one: Nicks stands 6-foot-5 and Joseph 6-3, and there are 662 pounds between them.
“I haven’t felt it in a very, very long time,” Joseph said of the enthusiasm around his team. “It’s good to finally get an exciting group of players together. It’s exciting to have a coach who is really all about football.”
The feeling around Bucs camp is that this could be the most talented offense Tampa Bay has fielded in a long time. Quarterback Josh Freeman has plenty of weapons around him with Martin, Jackson and wide receiver Mike Williams. But the line will be the gatekeeper of any potential run toward an NFC South title, and Nicks’ and Joseph’s health will be key in that effort.
Differences are already being felt with their presence, even as the Bucs continue to ease both back from injury. Running back Brian Leonard, a seven-year veteran, described the Nicks/Joseph influence this way Monday: “There’s some big holes out there. … It’s one of the better lines I’ve been around in a long time. It’s exciting to be a part of this.”
The feeling is understandable, and if Nicks and Joseph can stay healthy, it could spread. Nicks was succinct when asked how hard it has been to be patient in his recovery — “It sucks, man,” he said — but he also added that “there’s no telling how good we can be” if everyone does their job and stays healthy.
That is a common theme early in training camp. All of this is potential, largely dependent on health, as the Bucs learned with Nicks and Joseph last season: The stars, the big-money names, the possible chemistry that could form to end a five-year postseason drought.
Nicks and Joseph are part of that vision. They could become centerpieces of a solution.
“We’ve got to work,” Joseph said. “We’ve got the right attitude. We’ve got the right group of guys, the right coaches put together to be a special team.”
This time last year, Schiano thought he had a special offensive line. He could see it yet.