Shortly after Bucs defensive tackle Gerald McCoy learned he had been selected to the Pro Bowl last season, he heard from Bucs great and now-Hall of Famer Warren Sapp. "No. 99, I call him,'' McCoy said. He thought No. 99 was about to congratulate him on a job well done. He thought 99 was going to give him a verbal pat on the back, maybe welcome him to some sort of Pro Bowl club with secret handshakes and passwords and whatnot. Instead, No. 99 coldly told McCoy, "Now what?'' "I thought, 'Man, can't I enjoy this for like five minutes?' '' McCoy said. But then McCoy realized what Sapp was saying. Making the Pro Bowl wasn't the end of the road. It was only the beginning. He took Sapp's words to heart. And then to the weight room. And the practice field.
"His work ethic has gotten only stronger,'' Bucs coach Greg Schiano said.
Truth be known, McCoy, 25, liked how the words "Pro Bowler'' looked next to his name.
"I think he's had a taste of it and he loved it,'' defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan said. "And I think he knows he can even continue to grow as a player, and he's gotten himself in phenomenal shape. I think he will have a great year this year."
The Bucs are looking for new cornerback Darrelle Revis to solve the team's pass-defense woes. New safety Dashon Goldson is supposed to assume the role of a leader. Linebacker Lavonte David is a tackling machine who calls the defensive signals.
But make no mistake, McCoy remains the key to the Bucs defense. You build defenses around a guy like McCoy. And with all due respect to the rusty Revis and the others, McCoy is the best player on this defense and only getting better.
"He's in fantastic condition,'' Sheridan said. "He really went way above and beyond getting ready this year from just a pure conditioning standpoint.''
The third overall pick in 2010, McCoy was hampered by injures his first two seasons. He played 13 games his rookie season and only six the following year. Whispers wondered if McCoy was a bust.
But, last season, he stayed healthy for the first time and put in a full 16-game season. The result? Despite being double-teamed time and time again, McCoy recorded five sacks and anchored the No. 1 rushing defense in the NFL. Thus came the Pro Bowl selection.
McCoy has never lacked confidence, even back when everyone wondered if he was just a mediocre player. And as much as he, with the help of Sapp, is putting that Pro Bowl selection in the rearview mirror, there's also no question that the Pro Bowl trip has given him what Schiano calls "legitimate confidence.''
"He earned that confidence by his performance,'' Schiano said.
Listen to McCoy speak about the defense and it is easy to mistake that confidence for cockiness.
"It starts with me being the leader up front,'' McCoy said.
Check out this line: "If I get rolling,'' McCoy said, "everybody gets rolling.''
How about this quote: "I take it upon myself to set the tone,'' McCoy said, "and bring everybody with me.''
At times, McCoy has been criticized for talking too much and acting like a big shot without having the credentials to justify his loud words.
But, I've got to be honest. I love hearing McCoy say things like this. You want your best players to strut around like they're your best players.
Better yet, shouldn't your best players take on the responsibilities that best players should? He's not talking about what this guy or that guy needs to do. He's not talking about being a follower. He doesn't look at the top of his shoes and mutter how he's just one piece of the puzzle and how everyone needs to step up together.
To heck with that. McCoy puffs out his chest and acts like he is the biggest, baddest dude in town and if things go south, go ahead and blame him.
Quite frankly, the Bucs could use a few more players willing to take on that kind of responsibility.
"He's one of the key leaders, for sure,'' Schiano said.
McCoy is the lone star on a Bucs defensive line full of questions. He'll likely see more double teams than ever before. As his career has shown, his productivity will go hand-in-hand with his health.
But if the Bucs are going to be any good on defense, the former Oklahoma standout needs to have another monster season.
You can't have a really good defense without a dominant force in the middle of the line. Remember the last time the Bucs had a great defense and No. 99 was lined up in the middle?
Now, with No. 99's words ringing in his ear, McCoy is ready to answer the question of now what?
I think you will like the answer. It starts Sunday in New Jersey. It will end at the Pro Bowl in Hawaii.