TAMPA — There comes a time in every NFL training camp, usually about 10 or 12 days in, when the players become so fed up with hitting teammates that the practices start to get a little chippy.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers reached that point almost a week ago.
Somewhat exasperated, coach Lovie Smith opened each of his last two press conferences this week saying the Bucs badly needed to play a game so the players could finally let loose.
They finally get that chance tonight.
For the first time since he was fired as coach of the Bears following a 10-6 season in 2012, Smith will stand on an NFL sideline when the Bucs open the 2014 preseason against the Jacksonville Jaguars at EverBank Field.
Smith admits he’s a little nervous about his return.
“Butterflies?” Smith said, rhetorically. “Yes, because you do miss it. Every year when I was at my last job there was excitement for the first game every year, and that’s not going to change.
“No matter how many times you’ve done this, whether it’s your first year or your 20th, there’s always excitement. Whenever there are fans and officials and you’re going against somebody else, there’s excitement because we want to see what we have.”
A re-energized Bucs fan base can certainly relate. Since Smith arrived as the 10th head coach in franchise history in January, every move he’s made has raised the level of anticipation for the coming season.
And tonight all the questions they have about the revamped defensive line, the overhauled offensive line, the 52-year-old rookie offensive coordinator and the 35-year-old starting quarterback will start to be answered.
“It’s a special moment,” said Josh McCown, the career backup quarterback in whom Smith has placed his faith by naming the starter. “It doesn’t matter that I’ve done it before.
“They’re painting the field and turning the lights on and we’re putting on jerseys, so it’s special. And to go out there for the first time with these guys is special. It’s humbling and it will never ever get old.”
The excitement won’t last for long. Not for projected starters such as McCown. Smith wouldn’t provide details, but said the starters will likely play only about a quarter in this game.
“We are new and we do need a lot of work against someone else,” Smith said, “but it’s about what gives us the best chance to play our best ball against Carolina.”
The truth of the matter, though, is that it’s not all about what gives them the best chance to play well against Carolina in the Sept. 8 season opener. The majority of the preseason is about deciding which players will fill out the bottom of the roster.
That’s why, long after many fans have tuned out tonight, Smith and his staff will be watching intently to see if some of the young players who have flashed in camp workouts can continue to do so in a game.
“I want to see the entire football team, but there is a group of guys that we really need to see,” Smith said. “They look good and show agility in all the drills here, but we want to see if they can finish.
“For a defensive lineman, for example, you can have a perfect pass rush and beat your offensive lineman, but can you get the quarterback down? We never put the quarterback down (in practice), so it’s not until we get to a game that we see if a defensive lineman can really finish.”
Or if a receiver can really catch. Or a cornerback can really cover. Or the coordinator can get the play called and the quarterback get it communicated to the huddle.
“That’s as big as anything,” McCown said. “Just making sure all that’s clean and getting to where we feel really comfortable, because those are things when you do move into the season that you don’t want to have question marks about.
“You want to feel like that’s clean, like the communication from play call to quarterback to huddle is all clean and we can all move in and out the way we expect to. And this game will give us a good opportunity to do that.”