“Finish the play, Gerald! Do not stop until the play is over! Get to the quarterback and keep on going until you bring the quarterback down!”
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The face behind the booming voice is unmistakable, even if his team colors seem a bit out of place at first glance. But on a scorching Friday morning in Tampa, former three-time All-Pro linebacker Bryan Cox, dressed in all black, IS giving it to Buccaneers defensive tackle Gerald McCoy like he would have given it to an AFC East opposing left guard throughout the 1990s.
The third overall selection of the 2010 NFL Draft, McCoy’s been a bit of a disappointment in his first two years in the league, missing time with injuries and failing to justify his hefty price tag and high draft status. On this particular morning, Cox is zeroed in on the onetime Oklahoma star.
“We don’t stop until we get to the quarterback, gentlemen! Gerald, we don’t stop!” Cox shouts with a mix of fury, encouragement and disgust.
A play after being bullied to the ground by free-agent acquisition Carl Nicks, McCoy responds to Cox’s pleas with a swift and powerful swim move on the former New Orleans Saints star. McCoy gets past the highest-paid offensive guard in all of football and angrily attacks a tackling dummy serving as an opposing quarterback.
“Thattaboy, Gerald! We do not stop until we get to that quarterback. We do not stop! See what happens when we don’t stop?!”
Cox, who once saluted Bills fans with two middle fingers before a game in Buffalo, then hurries over to McCoy and slaps him hard on his shoulder pads. “We do not stop, gentlemen!”
Cox is clearly the voice and face during this particular drill; the “hype man” for a brand-new coaching staff in Tampa Bay that’s gotten little to no hype at all this offseason.
But the former Miami Dolphins linebacker is far from the most recognizable name on the call sheet. Looming a few paces away, in a visor behind the defenseless tackling dummy, is Butch Davis — a onetime coach of the Miami Hurricanes and Cleveland Browns and, most recently, North Carolina Tar Heels. Davis, who has nearly four decades of coaching experience on his resume, is serving as an adviser in Tampa Bay this season.
Just a few feet away from Davis is Ron Turner, a former head coach at Illinois and ex-offensive coordinator of the Chicago Bears. Turner, now the quarterbacks coach in Tampa Bay, is in what appears to be a deep conversation with former New York Giants quarterbacks coach Mike Sullivan, now the Bucs’ offensive coordinator, and Jimmy Raye, who has 34 years of NFL coaching experience.
And, yet, Greg Schiano, the man on the very top of the Bucs’ new coaching org chart, walks the sideline on this 100-degree morning, a whistle in his mouth, with zero years of NFL head-coaching experience. Despite all the other decades of NFL coaching tenure on the payroll, there’s no question who’s the boss down in Tampa Bay this summer.
“Those few weeks are a bit of a blur,” says Tampa Bay general manager Mark Dominik, watching the practice session from a tented area about 40 feet from the field. “Between the coaching search, free agency and, then, the draft — it made for several consecutive sleepless nights.”
A year after shocking the league and unexpectedly winning 10 games in 2010, the Buccaneers gave up on head coach Raheem Morris and lost 10 straight games to finish the 2011 season. They didn’t just quit on Morris; they quit on themselves. In the final five weeks of the year, Tampa Bay gave up 38, 41, 31, 48 and 45 points. This was worse than the badminton scandal that rocked the Olympics last week — the Bucs didn’t just mail it in on one Sunday; they mailed it in for two straight months.
Dominik cleaned house and after an extended search process that included a roller-coaster ride with Oregon coach Chip Kelly, found a no-nonsense disciplinarian who would no doubt get the young Buccaneers into shape in 2012. After taking the job, Schiano brought in a star-studded cast of trusted veteran coordinators, assistants and advisers. The Buccaneers coaching staff, though not getting much pub this offseason, is a veritable “Who’s Who” of NFL and college football coaching history.
Under Schiano, hardly a players’ coach, things are different than they were with the previous coaching regime. The Buccaneers are all made accountable for their own mistakes. There’s no special treatment whatsoever, and there’s certainly no leeway. You’re either with Schiano’s program or you’re not. And if you’re not, you won’t be wearing the pewter and black this season.
As Bryan Cox dug into McCoy — a player ProFootballTalk recently described as “The Ryan Leaf to Ndamukong Suh’s Peyton Manning” — on Friday, the Bucs’ second-round pick from that same 2010 draft was somewhere in Illinois, trying to make the Bears’ roster. Brian Price, the 2009 Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year and the 35th selection of the 2010 Draft, was traded last week for a future seventh-round pick. Meanwhile, Dez Briscoe, a receiver who led the team in touchdown catches last year, was waived last week, too. Kellen Winslow was shown the door earlier this summer. Though the Bucs didn’t offer any official comments on any of the three players, it’s widely assumed they didn’t “fit” into what Schiano’s looking to do in Tampa.
Some guys who do? First-round pick Mark Barron, a punishing safety who’ll be in the starting lineup, lined up next to Ronde Barber, Week One vs. the Carolina Panthers; Vincent Jackson, a 6-foot-5 wide receiver who was acquired with a five-year, $55,555,555 deal back in March; and Carl Nicks, the most dominant interior offensive lineman in the NFL. The front office loves what they have in their second first-round pick, running back Doug Martin out of Boise State. And franchise quarterback Josh Freeman is 20 pounds lighter and looking more confident than he has in any training camp before. Dallas Clark provides much needed veteran leadership, and kicker Connor Barth was locked up with a long-term deal.
Those names are obviously the big-ticket attractions, but there are other players who have the Bucs organization excited. Leonard Johnson, an undrafted rookie free agent out of Iowa State, has stood out since rookie minicamps. Dekoda Watson, a seventh-round pick out of Florida State in 2010, is working with both the linebackers and the defensive ends throughout camp. Roy Miller, a guy who’s had his ups and downs in his three years with the Bucs, has made quite an impression this summer, as well. From top to bottom, there’s optimism and enthusiasm in Tampa Bay this summer.
But don’t let that fool you. In a division that features the Saints, Atlanta Falcons and Carolina Panthers, any talk of division crowns or Super Bowl runs must be tempered. They’re the Andy Murrays of the NFC South — a tremendously talented team that must compete with the Federer, Djokovic and Nadal of its division.
Because, as good as the Bucs are this season, they know they won’t be playing January football unless they finish above .500 in their six games against their division foes. If there’s one realist in the bunch, it’s the man in black with the familiar voice.
“Man, it’s August,” Cox says when I ask him how the team’s looking after Friday’s practice. “August football doesn’t mean a damn thing. Let’s see how they look when they actually step on the field.”
As for Dominik, he’s just eager to see the finished product of his offseason’s work. After a wait that was a bit longer than most expected, he brought in the right head coach and got the right coaching staff to come aboard. He got three of the most highly sought-after free agents — Jackson, Nicks and cornerback Eric Wright — to sign on the dotted line. His staff then hit what appear to be home runs with the first three picks of the draft (Barron, Martin, linebacker Lavonte David). The excitement in Tampa Bay is real.
Whether or not Cox wants to hear it, it’s justified.
“Those were a wild few weeks for all of us,” Dominik says with a laugh as he reflects upon the mad scramble that was Tampa’s March and April.
He steps away to shake hands with a longtime season-ticket holder. He asks a young Bucs fan when he’ll be wearing the pewter. He glides over to pat the team’s mascot on the back. Dominik looks at the young Buccaneers as they practice at full speed in full pads in the 100-degree heat.
“We’re definitely happy with what we’ve got in place right now,” he says with a nod. “The fan response has been incredible, and there’s good energy. Everyone’s excited for Week One.”
Indeed, one of the first things Schiano did after the NFL schedule was released in April was make sure the date and time of Week One’s game against the Panthers was ingrained in every player’s mind. They all know about Sept 9, 1 p.m. They’ve known about it for months.
But these aren’t the 2011 Buccaneers. Some faces might be the same, but they’re not the same team. The vibe has changed; the look and feel is completely different.
Everyone — from Bryan Cox to Gerald McCoy to Mark Dominik to the team mascot — is hoping the results are, too.