Postcard from training camp... Day one - Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Day one of a coast-to-coast training camp tour that will take in the states of Florida, Texas, California, Illinois and Ohio began on Friday with a relatively pain-free drive down the I4 from Orlando to Tampa.
First on the itinerary was a visit to a Tampa Bay Buccaneers team embracing a fresh start under new head coach Bruce Arians. It was fair to say that the team's mood was a great deal brighter than the weather on a wet and stormy day on Florida's Gulf Coast.
The Bucs practiced indoors at their team headquarters just a Jameis Winston Hail Mary pass away from Raymond James Stadium. And the team that has produced back-to-back 5-11 seasons will be worth a sneaky watch in 2019 as Arians attempts to wave his magic wand and produce an unfashionable winner.
That is not an easy balancing act to pull off. You tend to find coaches in the NFL are either hard-nosed disciplinarians or guys who give too much freedom to their charges. Arians learned early in his career from the legendary Paul 'Bear' Bryant to "coach them hard and hug them harder later." He can come down on a player like a ton of bricks and/or give him a hug and motivate him to perform at a high level.
"He can do both and I think that's why a lot of guys respect him," David stressed. "You need a coach to get on you when he needs to get on you. There are no favourites. At the same time, he lets you be you and let's you go out there and play football."
It is not going to be an easy turnaround and much will depend on what the renowned quarterback whisperer can get out of the oft-discussed Winston. There is a reason the Bucs have not signed their passer to a long-term contract as he enters year five and it comes down to limited trust on and off the field.
Arians doesn't buy that and is bullish on his passer. Now the not-so-young passer must repay such faith and prove he is the long-term solution. But it will take more than that as Arians, along with coordinator Todd Bowles, must upgrade a defense that ranked 31st in the NFL a year ago.
Few question Arians' pedigree or ability to produce a winner. There is work to be done in Tampa, but there is no doubt the Bucs are in good hands with their new head coach at the helm.
There is quite the braintrust when it comes to getting the best out of Winston. Arians and offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich are former quarterbacks and veteran offensive guru Tom Moore is also in camp offering his wisdom at the tender age of 80. Arians lets his coaches coach, for sure, but he and Moore are over the shoulder of Winston on every throw and eyeing every catch made by his receivers. There are still questions over Winston, but this group is blue-chip, without question.
Winston is surrounded by passing game talent. Mike Evans and tight ends O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate all scored touchdowns in portions of today's practice and all should continue to perform at a very high level in 2019. Chris Godwin is in for a promising year and Scott Miller has turned offseason heads. And that's not even mentioning Breshad Perriman, who got wide open for two deep completions from Blaine Gabbert. If he goes off, the Bucs will score for fun.
The running back job remains Peyton Barber's to lose. Arians loves him and he is rock solid. Barber showed some good change-of-direction skills on the ground and was also a factor in the passing game through checkdowns and screen throws.
One to Watch
Bruce Arians spoke glowingly of his sixth-round draft choice out of Bowling Green when we spoke in the spring. And Jameis Winston hailed the rookie as fantastic. So I arrived at Bucs camp on Friday intent on keeping an eye on Miller. He certainly caught the eye today. It feels too lazy to say he looks like a young Julian Edelman... but he looks like a young Julian Edelman. Watch this space with this guy.
Quote of the Day
"Jameis Winston is hands down the hardest worker I have ever seen. Period. Sometimes I say to him, 'Wow, don't you want to take a break?' I get protective of him at times because people don't know how hard he works. But he's a grown man and he can handle himself. He handles everything he has been through very well." -Buccaneers Pro Bowl wide receiver Mike Evans.
Inside the Game
During my conversation with Bruce Arians today I wanted to gauge how comfortable an NFL head coach likes to make his quarterback. In Arians' case, the answer is 'extremely comfortable.' I asked Arians what percentage of plays to start each game would be chosen by his quarterback. Arians told me that his staff would go into a game with 45 chosen plays and then they add variables in red zone, short yardage etc. And how many of those 45 are picked by the quarterback? Every single one of them. As Arians explained: "I'm not calling plays he doesn't like."
The Last Word
Day one concluded with a 200-mile drive north-east across the state of Florida from Tampa to Jacksonville. And a thoroughly enjoyable day it was, too. The Bucs have been a non-factor for a few years but are relevant again and what Arians can or cannot achieve in Tampa is going to be one of THE stories of 2019. Next up will be a Jaguars team that talked a great game in 2018 but failed to back it up. There is much talent on Doug Marrone's squad and I'm intrigued to see how they approach the new season from a mental standpoint.