Tampa Bay Buccaneers Camp Notes, Day One: Bruce Arians put away his Super Bowl ring and made sure his team understand that the title defense has to start from scratch…Plus, the return of fans and a new role for Ross Cockrell
There is - and always will be - some disagreement as to whether Sunday is the first or last day of the week. Most calendars you see would seem to indicate that the week starts on Sunday, but international standard ISO 8601 states that Monday comes first.
One thing is for certain, though: This particular Sunday at the AdventHealth Training Center was definitely a new beginning for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The Buccaneers certainly had a momentous run-up to the weekend. On Tuesday, the team went to the White House for the traditional visit with the President of the United States. Then, on Thursday evening, players, coaches and staff members gathered again for another enormous celebration: The Super Bowl LV ring ceremony. Those two historic occasions celebrating the Buccaneers' 2020 championship season fell awfully close to the beginning of a new season, and Head Coach Bruce Arians wanted their to be a clean break in between.
This is how Arians described the past week and it's incredible celebrations: "It's over. It's over. That's last year."
This is not a new message from Arians in 2021, but this was the most important day for him to emphasize it. Almost since the moment the Boat Parade ended after the Bucs' Super Bowl LV victory, Arians has been stressing to the players that one championship did not guarantee the team anything the following season. The pursuit of another Lombardi Trophy would have to start back on the ground floor, and Sunday's practice - the first of the Bucs' 2021 training camp - was where that effort would begin in earnest.
"Don't assume anything," Arians said when asked to describe his camp-opening message to the team. "We're starting from scratch. That was last year's team. This team, we can't assume that we know anything. We have to go back to the beginning, start all over, listen in the meetings and learn more from the film we have from last year."
Arians has already put his Super Bowl ring away and said he didn't see any of the players wearing theirs into the office on Sunday. It's pretty clear that his message has sunk in all across the roster.
"It's over with now," said running back Leonard Fournette "I know we're champs and everything but it's time to start all over. It's a fresh start. That's in the past now. A saying we always go by is, 'nobody remembers who won the Super Bowl four or five years ago.' The thing is to focus on what's next."
Wide receiver Mike Evans remembers the Buccaneers trip to Pittsburgh in his 2014 rookie season. The Steelers were not defending league champs in 2014 but they had been to three Super Bowls over the previous nine seasons and won two championships. The Bucs were 0-3 at the time of the trip and would win just twice that entire season, but they gave the Steelers all they could handle in Week Four, winning 27-24 on a last-minute Vincent Jackson touchdown. That's the kind of effort Evans expects all the Bucs' opponents to bring now that they have the mantle of league champions. And that reinforces Arians' overall message of starting from scratch in 2021.
"It has to be the mindset," said Evans. "You can't get complacent. We won last year; today starts a new season. We're the defending champs but we're not the champs of this season yet. We've got to keep working and try to reach that goal again."
One aspect of the Bucs' 2021 training camp that definitely made it feel like a new season was the return of a rooting section.
Last summer, the COVID-19 pandemic forced teams to close their doors to visitors during training camp, marking the first time in 45 seasons that the Buccaneers did not have fans in attendance for practices. This year, league protocols allow for a limited number of fans and the Bucs will have season pass members and select groups at each of their 15 open workouts.
On Sunday, the bleachers along the whole sideline to the west of Field One, where most of the work done by first and second-string players was conducted, were full and agreeably noisy. Evans enjoyed getting instant and loud feedback every time he caught a pass.
"It's exciting, having the fans back, just normalcy," said Evans. "It's why we play the game, for the fans, and it was good to see them. Having the fans here and then now that we've changed the program around, we're more of a winning team now, it just feels different. It feels good."
For Fournette, the cheering crowd was another sign that the NFL is moving back towards what it was before the pandemic-gripped 2020 campaign.
"It just shows football's coming back the real way," he said. "Having fans, that's part of our job - they fuel us up in games, practices, stuff like that. It was a whole different environment...it brought a lot of energy to the field."
The Buccaneers opened camp with a reasonably healthy 90-man roster and Arians said the players as a whole came back "in really good shape." There is one position, however, that is already seeing its ranks get thin, and that caused the coaches to use one veteran defender at a new spot.
Ross Cockrell, who spent most of last season as the team's fourth cornerback after signing in September, primarily worked at safety on Sunday to help out a depleted group and possibly give the coaches some more options on game days this fall.
A week ago, the Buccaneers had eight safeties on their roster, which would have been plenty to start training camp. However, veteran Curtis Riley was waived/injured last Thursday and returning starter Jordan Whitehead landed on the reserve/COVID-19 list on Friday. In addition, Raven Greene, a veteran addition in May, was excused from the start of camp for personal reasons.
The Buccaneers used their one open roster spot on Sunday morning to add first-year safety Chris Cooper, who spent much of last season on Denver's practice squad, but it will likely take some time for the Stony Brook product to get up to speed on the team's playbook. The more immediate solution to the thinned safety ranks was to repurpose Cockrell, a heady veteran who at least has a grasp on the playbook from the cornerback position.
If Cockrell handles his new assignment well he could make himself even more valuable when the 53-man roster is being constructed because of what it means when that roster is trimmed to 47 or 48 players on game day.
"He's a guy that he's so smart he can play a lot of positions," said Arians. "He might give us an ability to bring up another gunner if he can cover three or four spots for roster [on] game day."