Postcard from camp: Buccaneers
SI.com has dispatched 10 writers to report on the 32 NFL training camps across the country. For the complete schedule of postcards, click here.
Setting The Scene
In 1964, several dummy corporations began buying acres by the thousand in central Florida. The mouse-eared brains behind the corporations had two goals. They hoped to someday lure a 38-year-old, Mississippi-bred quarterback to their yet unbuilt sports complex for training camp. They also hoped to open a theme park. One out of two ain't bad.
Disney's Wide World of Sports complex -- soon to be rechristened with some sort of ESPN branding (Stuart Scott's Wild Ride!) -- felt far less buzzworthy Thursday than Wednesday. Even the satellite dishes on the TV trucks seemed to droop. But maybe that was just the heat, which topped out at an unseasonably brisk 90 Thursday.
1. Despite their very public dalliance with Brett Favre, Bucs coach Jon Gruden and general manager Bruce Allen don't need to crawl on hands and knees to beg the forgiveness of starting quarterback Jeff Garcia, who was pushing for a new contract before No. 4 made himself available. "I'm not going to turn this into an Oprah Winfrey special," Gruden cracked Thursday night when asked if he had spoken to Garcia, who missed Thursday's practice while nursing a calf injury.
Garcia, 38, understands the NFL is a business. Even though he is one of the league's lowest paid starting quarterbacks despite leading Tampa Bay to an NFC South title in 2007, and even though the team's decision to rest him the final two weeks of last season cost him a seven-figure bonus, Garcia is scheduled to make $2 million in base pay for working the next five months. Not too shabby. If Garcia's ego still hurts, he can take a deep breath and repeat the following sentence. "I still have my job, and I'm married to the 2004 Playmate of the Year."
2. That said, Garcia's teammates have his back. Fellow quarterback Chris Simms, who hopes this preseason to play his way off the HMS Gruden and onto another roster, said he hated watching Garcia twist during the Favre drama. "We all felt for Jeff," Simms said. "Jeff has done a lot of great things for this team. He deserves respect."
3. If Allen did make the conciliatory phone call to Garcia, here's hoping it went better than his first meeting with the media Thursday morning. Allen, the brother of a former U.S. senator, looked like a politician squirming to avoid giving a straight answer about the Favre non-deal. As a result, his words were interpreted as "We didn't try to get Brett Favre."
After reading the transcript, Allen realized how he sounded and elected to meet with media members again to clarify his answers. The session turned into an episode of CSI: Lake Buena Vista as beat reporters tried to coax an accurate timeline of the Bucs' role in the Favre saga out of Allen.
Here's the short version of that timeline, according to Allen. Yes, Tampa Bay was interested, and yes, the Bucs did receive permission to talk to Favre, but Packers officials never would tell Allen what they wanted in return for Favre. This, Allen surmised, was because the Packers were trying to exhaust all their AFC options before negotiating with a conference colleague they're scheduled to play Sept. 28.
New Face, New Place
On the first day teams could sign free agents, the Bucs handed Jeff Faine the richest contract a center has received, a six-year, $37 million deal that included $15 million up front. Faine, a six-year veteran of the Browns and Saints who grew up two hours from Tampa in Sanford, Fla., was the perfect anchor for a young line that could be very good for a long time. "The young group up front was talented," Faine said. "I saw a lot of potential in these guys." Faine, only 27 himself, had some help in seeing that potential. His agent, Ben Dogra, also represents Bucs third-year guard Davin Joseph and third-year tackle Jeremy Trueblood.
Looking At The Schedule
The Bucs will learn almost immediately how well equipped they are to repeat as NFC South champs. They open the season by visiting Jeremy Shockey and the Saints, who should be Tampa Bay's chief competition for the division title. The following week, Atlanta comes to Tampa. A split of two divisional matchups right out of the chute would be adequate. A sweep would be divine. A losing streak could be ugly.
Memorable Image From Camp
Garcia on Wednesday, as all the Favre rumors swirled, walked past a pair of Tampa Tribune reporters and uttered the phrase "Dead man walking." When the calf heals, prepare for NFL Films Presents: George A. Romero's Dawn of the Jeff.
Rookie cornerback Aqib Talib, last spotted helping Kansas beat Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl, is going to play plenty in nickel situations. He may not be ready to supplant starters Phillip Buchanon or Ronde Barber, but Talib's ball-hawking instincts will make him valuable on passing downs.
Speedy rookie receiver Dexter Jackson, who isn't related but shares the name of the defensive back who was a Super Bowl MVP for the Bucs earlier this decade, could allow the franchise to double or even triple its kickoff returns for touchdowns. Tampa Bay has exactly one since joining the league in 1976. It belongs to receiver Michael Spurlock, who took a Falcons kick to the house on Dec. 16, 2007.
It's pure joy to watch Bucs defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin coach. If only all of us could enjoy our jobs so much.
Earlier I wrote that Garcia should appreciate that he has his job. One Bucs teammate certainly appreciates his role. Earnest Graham, who entered the 2008 camp listed as the starting tailback, lived with his daughter and future wife in a series of $49-a-night motel rooms for several months in 2003 after a "friend" who was acting as Graham's manager stole all the family's money, which the undrafted free agent from Florida had received as injury settlement after being cut by the Bucs. Graham re-signed with the Bucs in 2004 and plugged away on special teams until a knee injury to Cadillac Williams thrust Graham into the spotlight. Last year, he rushed for 898 yards and 10 touchdowns. In the offseason, Graham signed a four-year deal that will pay him $2.5 million this season and ensure that his family always has the same roof over its head.