It’s Adam Humphries’ birthday, and he’s in the back of the party bus celebrating.
The bus comes to a stop. The door opens. It’s someone Humphries wasn’t expecting.
He’s wearing an American flag button-down shirt, which, believe it or not, is the least interesting part of his wardrobe.
“He was rocking jorts,” Humphries says. “I specifically remember that.”
A once-roomy bus suddenly becomes jam-packed.
The man takes a seat, or perhaps more accurately, seats.
The maximum occupancy on the bus is 20. But when Beau Allen, all 327 pounds of him, arrives, it shrinks to 18.
“Beau was taking up the whole side of the bus,” says Cameron Brate, another passenger. “I think he raised the temperature by about 10 degrees once he stepped on.”
If you didn’t know Allen, you’d think the Bucs’ new defensive tackle must have trouble fitting in. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. He represents what the team has been missing.
• • •
The numbers say that the Bucs’ biggest weakness last season was their defensive line. They generated pressure once every four pass plays, the lowest rate in the NFL, according to Sports Info Solutions. So it’s no surprise that they recorded only 22 sacks. If not for those six sacks of the Jets’ Josh McCown in Week 10, they would have finished the season with the fewest sacks in team history.
Quarterbacks mercilessly took advantage of the extra time. The Bucs allowed the fourth-highest completion rate (67.6 percent), the most passing yards (4,169), the sixth-highest passer rating (94.6) and the third-most pass plays of 20 or more yards (57).
The Bucs were lost. They didn’t have answers. Blitzing didn’t work. Not blitzing didn’t work. And when they played bend-but-don’t-break, they usually ended up bending and breaking.
What do you do when you don’t have answers? You look to the Super Bowl champions. The Eagles weren’t among the league leaders in sacks, but their defensive line consistently hurried quarterbacks.
But the Bucs didn’t just look at the Eagles. They tried to become them, bringing a pair of free agents to Tampa from Philadelphia in March, first Allen and then defensive end Vinny Curry a few days later. It was all part of general manager Jason Licht’s not-so-transparent plan to rip a page out of Philadelphia’s playbook and invest in the trenches. The Bucs and Eagles are spending more on their defensive lines this season than any team but the Jaguars.
It’s a two-pronged strategy: 1. Add talent. 2. Solidify depth.
The Eagles had enough of both last season that seven linemen played at least 40 percent of the snaps. For the Bucs, six linemen played at least 40 percent, led by Gerald McCoy, who played a whopping 76 percent. Most teams had no more than five.
Philly’s defensive line rotation was effective, but it wasn’t unorthodox.
“They just won the Super Bowl, so everybody’s looking at them,” Bucs defensive line coach Brentson Buckner said. “I came from Arizona, where I played multiple guys. It’s a way to keep guys fresh. It’s a way to keep guys healthy. Most injuries occur because of fatigue. If you can keep these world-class athletes healthy, they can be more productive.”
A Football Outsiders statistic called adjusted games lost supports Buckner’s claim. By this measure, which attempts to quantify how much a team was affected by injuries, the Eagles’ defensive line was relatively unscathed (4.3 games lost) and the Bucs’ line was hit hard (23.7 games lost). As coaches often say, the best ability is availability.
The Bucs lacked something more than talent and depth, perhaps something that could have come only from outside the organization. Something that can’t be measured.
• • •
“We all we got. We all we need.”
The slogan of the 2017 Eagles is everywhere now.
It started with Curry, who has been saying it since he was a student at Neptune High School near Asbury Park, N.J. In Philadelphia, he incorporated it into the team’s pregame huddle chant. It started like this:
Curry: “One, two, three!”
Team: “We all we got!”
And it ended with an homage to pro wrestling great Ric Flair:
Curry: “Four, five, six!”
The team added “We all we need” late last season when quarterback Carson Wentz tore his left ACL, an injury that led many to dismiss Philadelphia’s Super Bowl hopes.
“You feed off the energy, but you don’t let it affect you,” Curry said of the Eagles’ underdog mentality. “You feed the good wolf. You don’t let it distract you. You let it motivate you.”
Curry, a second-round draft pick in 2012, had three sacks last season, but it’s not a stretch to wonder whether he could have racked up more had he not had to come off the field on third downs. In fewer than 600 snaps, he recorded 17 quarterback hits, third most among edge rushers, and 47 total pressures. By comparison, Jason Pierre-Paul, the Bucs’ splashier offseason free-agent acquisition from the Giants, played 400 more snaps and recorded only seven more pressures.
You didn’t hear Curry complain.
“One thing that we did, check your ego at the door,” he said. “As a competitor, as a player, you never want to come out of the game. That’s anybody. Check your ego at the door. It’s bigger than us. It’s about the team.”
In a league where any given play could be your last, where your team is always looking to replace you with someone faster, stronger and cheaper, checking your ego is easier said than done. Former Eagles tight end Brent Celek, Curry’s teammate for six seasons, was one of the veterans that helped set that expectation.
“It’s really tough in the NFL, man. People don’t understand it,” said Celek, who saw his role shift when Philadelphia drafted Zach Ertz in 2013. “You work your whole life to get to this point, and when you give it your all, you really want every opportunity that you can possibly get because you never know when those aren’t going to come. It’s in some ways a selfish culture that you’ve got to turn unselfish, and it’s tough.”
Curry and Allen are here to sack quarterbacks and stuff running backs, but the biggest thing they’ll bring, Celek said, is selflessness.
“How those guys are personality-wise, they’ll fit in anywhere,” he said. “I think to have a great team, you need to have a bunch of guys like that. I think what made our team special was our whole team was made up of that last year, a bunch of selfless guys that were all about just winning football games, whatever that took.”
The Bucs, meanwhile, were finding ways to lose games last season. One loss in particular stands out: 22-19 to the Panthers in Week 16. Late in the game, defensive tackle Chris Baker jumped offside on a critical fourth down inside the Bucs’ 5-yard line, despite a warning from McCoy to watch for quarterback Cam Newton’s hard count. Two plays later, Carolina celebrated a go-ahead touchdown.
Afterward, several Bucs felt irritated about Baker’s lack of remorse over the penalty and confronted him in the locker room. The confrontation quickly escalated into a screaming match.
It’s impossible to know how much chemistry affects games or how much games affect chemistry. But in a sport in which the difference in talent between teams is slight and the margin for error is perilously thin, it’s essential that players work together well.
“We’re on our way to being a really tight unit, and that goes a long way, man,” Allen said. “I think that’s one thing that’s a little bit understated is just chemistry and really caring about, loving the guys you’re playing with and trying to go the extra mile for them.”
• • •
Players on great teams — on championship teams — see each other as family members, said Buckner, who played on the 1995 Steelers and 2003 Panthers teams that went to the Super Bowl. When he talks to his former teammates, they don’t even talk about the game. They talk about the journey, he said.
“We’re here 15, 16 hours out of 24 hours a day, so I’ve got to have an emotional contact with you,” Buckner said. “I don’t just want to know you as a football player because I’ve got to know where you’re feeling bad, when you might need me outside of football. So you create that family-type culture, so that when a guy’s feeling bad, he needs to be lifted up, he doesn’t have to say it, you just know it because you’ve been that close to him.”
Chemistry isn’t something that just happens. A team must work on it and build on it. To that end, Bucs coach Dirk Koetter tried something in the offseason that he hadn’t before, organizing what he called a unity meeting. He declined to elaborate, saying that he’d rather the players talk about it.
During the spring, Koetter split the team into groups of six or seven — four or five players, a coach and a staff member — and paired people who normally wouldn’t be around each other every day in the locker room. He provided questions and then asked group members to share their answers with each other. That led to deeper conversations that the team otherwise might not have had, Brate said.
“Coming from where I came from — suburban America, white picket fence in my town — for a lot of the guys in my group, it wasn’t like that for them,” the tight end said. “Hearing about stuff that they had to go through, the perseverance they had, it was a great experience for me.”
The meeting gave players who tend to be reluctant to speak up a chance to be heard, Humphries said.
“A lot of times your face leaders, people that are getting paid the most, are expected to be the leaders,” the receiver said. “The other players just expect those guys to speak up when things are going wrong, to take action when a leadership role needs to be filled. That’s one of the cool things I got from that is it kind of gave everyone a voice and not just focusing on our four captains to be the leaders of our team. It takes everybody to pitch in and do it.”
The closer the team, the more successful it will be, Curry said.
“Think about it like it was a pickup game,” he said. “Your son’s not going to say, 'Give me him’ before he picks his brother. He’s going to say, 'Give me my brother. We’ll take on anybody.’ ”
Contact Thomas Bassinger at [email protected]. Follow @tometrics.