Bucs prepare to open a most anticipated preseason

by Gary Shelton on July 26, 2017 · 1 comment

in general, NFL, Tampa Bay Bucs

Wednesday, 4 a.m.

Hope sweats. Good thing, because Hope is preparing to report for training camp.

Given the heat of the summer, Hope had better be in pretty good shape.

It's the most optimistic time of the year, a time where every fat running back thinks he has 1,200 yards in him, where every quarterback who throws knuckleballs thinks he has 30 touchdowns in him. Every bad team is going to the Super Bowl, and every mediocre player is going to the Pro Bowl, and every coach who can't remember how many downs is in a series is going to be Vince Lombardi.

And isn't delusion sweet?

Oh, most fans know better. It's only the player who flex and speak like champions. A lot of years, it sounds hollow because, even if things go right, you know the team is staring at a top 10 draft pick. For those teams, preseason is a wink-wink, nudge-nudge sort of deal, where no one believes what's being said.

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Training camp is when Austin Seferian-Jenkins looks at you and swears that he finally gets it, when Josh Freeman tells you he won't be satisfied until he's great. In training camp, no one ever thinks they're going to be average. No one says “my goal this year is to hang onto my phony-baloney job so I can advance to the big-money round.” In training camp, everyone is going to be a star.

And so it is that we tread cautiously as the Bucs report for training camp this week. There has never a camp quite like this one, where the fan base is so sure great things are just around the corner despite the fact that the Bucs have lived several corners away for years. The team still hasn't won a playoff game since the Super Bowl in early 2003 (after the 2002 season). Heck, it hasn't even made the playoffs for 10 years, since Jon Gruden swept in with a 9-7 seasons and was quickly swept out.

After that has come a conga line of Raheem Morris (everyone's friend), and Greg Schiano (Sgt. Rock) and Lovie Smith (oops). It was a stretch where the Bucs returned to the punch lines, where they hung out with Cleveland and Buffalo and all of the other downtrodden of the league.

This year? This year, the Bucs are supposed to be good. Right? Jameis Winston is a budding star who will blossom with additional weapons, right? DeSean Jackson will make big plays, and O.J. Howard will rumble downfield, and the offensive line will be as the Bucs' coaches see it, not as league analysts see it. Noah Spence will be make quarterbacks soil themselves, and the secondary will heal, and the payoffs will be within a crucial game or two in December.

Why, you can see it all from the start of training camp.

Right over there. That's success.

Oh, it's happened before. I remember Eric Curry's first camp, and coaches being amazed at the natural skills he had. “He even held up against (Paul) Gruber,” a coach said walking off the field in those hazy days. Well, it didn't last long. Warren Sapp tells the story of an offensive tackle just pushing Curry deeper and deeper on his pass rush until Curry was 18 yards downfield. If the other team had turned, it could have punted to him way back there. Well, maybe.

I remember Simeon Rice arriving in his first training camp. I asked him how many sacks he thought he would have. “Twenty-seven,” he said. Well, he had 11. No one complained.

I remember Scott Milanovich throwing two deep passes to beat Pittsburgh in the Hall of Fame game one year, and legions of fans believing that Milanovich was the answer. For years, you would hear rumblings that then-coach Tony Dungy didn't like Milanovich. Never mind the Steelers' were playing scrub defensive backs for the Steelers. You know, guys who would be selling used Gremlins in a week. Nevertheless, a legend was born.

I remember Tim Ruskell, the old Seattle general manager, telling me a story about being the first guy ever fired by the Bucs. Ruskell was a ballboy that year, and his job was to gather footballs. So he had an armful of balls, and he noticed one on the field. He knew that coach John McKay would go crazy if he saw a ball on the field, so Ruskell – holding all of those balls — thought he would just kick the ball out of harm's way. As it happens, McKay ran a sweep to that side of the field, and he was looking right at a ball boy kicking the ball in the middle of his play. He fired Ruskell on the spot (but rehired him).

I remember wondering why Jon Gruden wasn't playing Cadillac Williams when Williams was a rookie. I was sure it was going to affect Williams. It did. In his first month, he set an NFL record for four games. Shows what I know.

I remember offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski being fired three weeks through the preseason. The only thing dumber was hiring him to start with.

I remember Earnest Graham leading the team in rushing in every preseason, well, ever.

I remember writing that the Bucs needed to sign Dexter Manley when he was cut by Arizona, and draft Keith McCants, and go to red jerseys. Once, my wife suggested that I must run the Bucs' front office. I told that to Rich McKay,who responded “Well, you're doing a lousy job of it.”

In training camp, there really aren't a lot of stats to make you happy because players play so few plays. That is, except for Vinny Testaverde, who threw for 233 yards and three scores in his first game in 1987. It didn't last. Meanwhile, Doug Williams, Trent Dilfer and Josh Freeman all threw for 60 yards or fewer. Jameis Winston threw for 131, but his rating was only 48.3.

NFL great Anthony Munoz was going to try to stretch one more year out of his body in 1983. He was injured in a preseason game in Orlando, however. And that's how his career ended … riding on a bus back from Orlando in pain.

This year? It's a good thing that the Bucs are on Hard Knocks, because the fans seem hungry for whatever they can find out. Chris Godwin? Jeremy McNichols? Justin Evans? O.J. Howard?

Rarely has there been a preseason so intriguing.

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