|Brian Blanco/Associated Press|
|Greg Schiano is entering his first season as Buccaneers head coach after spending the past 11 years at Rutgers.|
TAMPA -- The punt sailed high, floating in space for what felt like three minutes, headed in the direction of Tampa Bay Buccaneers tackle Donald Penn, a 6-foot-5, 305-pound "athlete" who was standing 40 yards away, all by himself.
If he catches it, this minicamp is over -- and players are done until training camp commences in late July. If he doesn't, Thursday morning's practice in this ridiculously sweltering heat will continue. Those were coach Greg Schiano's orders.
"We were all holding our breath," wide receiver Vincent Jackson said.
But when Penn did indeed catch it, when he pulled that punt into his big belly, his on-looking teammates went nuts, absolutely ecstatic, chest-bumping each other like they'd just won the Super Bowl.
So what did we learn here? Did we learn that Tampa Bay's players still have a fun side, even though player-friendly coach Raheem Morris has been replaced by a tough disciplinarian? Or did we learn that these players are being worked so hard they couldn't help but express their relief? Reality rests somewhere in between.
With a minicamp and an offseason of organized team activities now in the books, Schiano has succeeded in his first step as the Bucs' coach: He has walked the fine line of tightening a ship with a strict set of expectations without alienating his players in the process. They are tired, yes, but many have also very clearly bought into the Schiano way.
"That was one of the first things Coach Schiano said when he got here: The sooner everybody buys in, the faster we'll start winning," Penn said Thursday. "And I think everybody is buying in.
"Last year was real tough on everybody. Losing that many games in a row at the end is tough; it's real tough. I don't think anybody in that locker room wants to have that feeling again."
This, though, goes deeper than just last year's 4-12 campaign, which finished with 10 straight losses. It isn't about who was fired -- but who was hired. It is worth noting the vast difference between Morris and Schiano -- two people who coach with polar-opposite approaches -- but only because it meant the returning players were in for an eye-opening experience at the start of this offseason.
They found themselves running to water breaks, following strict coaching orders during practices, showing up to meetings on time -- or else.
"Clear expectations is what we provide," Schiano said during an interview with NFL.com. "There's not a lot of gray area. If that's regimented, call it what you will. I think there's clear expectations.
"I think most frustration, from coaches and players alike, comes when there's not clear expectations. You think I want one thing, I think you want another. That's where frustration comes."
There have been plenty of examples already that seem to provide proof that players are indeed appreciating the current plan. Take Ronde Barber, a five-time Pro Bowler who has been with the Bucs since he was drafted in 1997. This year, Schiano is moving Barber from his cornerback position to safety -- a pretty drastic transition at this late stage of Barber's career.
Keep in mind, Barber was (and still is) very close friends with Morris, who served as a defensive backs coach for the Bucs before he was hired as head coach. They were as tight as a player and coach could be. Given all those factors, it stands to reason Barber might be among the most resistant to this current change.
Yet he is undoubtedly buying into what Schiano is selling. Barber is captivated by the move, excited about it, intrigued by the possibilities.
"I get a chance to be an impact player in this defense, and I'm looking forward to that," Barber said.
But forget the words of the players, Schiano said. He knows -- no, he expects -- players to say they are buying into the system. Why would they say otherwise, after all? They've got a new boss, a strict boss. There's no incentive to underselling their convictions in the system.
"If they're busting their ass, and they're doing what I want them to do, even if they don't want to do it, then they're buying in," Schiano said. "Words aren't buying in. I can say anything. I can say I believe. But actions -- when the actions show me, then I'll know they're buying in."
Yes, this regimented installation of rules and order is generally the fastest way to get players going. You're giving them no other choice, really. But it can also be dangerous, since players will want to see faster results from the process. This is not something Schiano fears. And he might just be onto something.
Maybe players, deep down, like this type of order. Heck, defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said Thursday he prefers this system because it reminds him of college "where it's more about step here, be here, don't look up, don't blink, that type of thing."
"We're given orders, and we're expected to follow them," McCoy said. "I like that."
It might seem strange on the surface -- that players might actually prefer this style -- because it isn't nearly as friendly and not always as much fun as the "other" way. Ultimately, though, the reward has the potential to be that much more enjoyable. And that's what Schiano is shooting for.
"If you make it crystal clear what you expect, and you make them accountable for that, that's always worked for me," Schiano said. "I think guys appreciate it. It gives them a safety net. It's not 'cool' for players to say they want it that way.
"But it gives them a sense of order, and I think they like that kind of stuff."
Follow Jeff Darlington on Twitter @jeffdarlington