TAMPA — At the midway point of the season, with the Bucs in an 0-8 tailspin heading into a Monday Night Football showdown with the cross-state rival Dolphins, Gerald McCoy was approached by coaches and asked to do something that is tiring to even contemplate:
Stay on the field for every play. Don't give in to fatigue, pain or 330-pound offensive linemen. Snap after snap, down after down, from the first quarter to the fourth quarter, go wire to wire on defense like some kind of windup toy.
"If you asked pretty much any (defensive) tackle in this league, they'd say it's virtually impossible to not come out of the game," McCoy said. "(The Bucs' coaches) said, 'We're going to need you to stay in the game. We've got a tough stretch, and things are not the same when you're not out there. So we need you to stay.' I said, 'Okay.' "
McCoy played all 59 defensive snaps that night and had five tackles and a sack in a 22-19 win.
In the specialized world of the NFL, where there is a personnel grouping for every down and distance, substitution patterns are part of the game. Even the most conditioned defensive lineman needs to tap out, get a breath of air or chug some water for a few plays each game.
McCoy, a Pro Bowl defensive tackle, was no different to start the season. Over the first seven games, he spent 73 plays on the sideline. But beginning with the Miami game, McCoy has rarely taken a play off.
He was permitted to sit for 12 plays in a 41-28 win over Atlanta. But over the past five games, he has taken a combined eight snaps off and never more than three in a game. He played all 61 snaps against the Rams last week.
"We challenged him," coach Greg Schiano said. "There's a considerable dropoff between (McCoy) and his backup. And that's no slight on his backup. There's a considerable dropoff between him and most players in the league at his position, starter or backup.
"So we said a 95-percent-efficient Gerald is probably as good as a 100-percent-fresh guy. Now, if it drops down into the 80s, that might be a different story. I think he's stepped up to that challenge in a big way."
It's one thing to be on the field for every snap. It's another to be all over the field once the ball is snapped.
McCoy, who plays the game with an undeniable joy, leads the Bucs with nine sacks; he is one of only four tackles in club history with that many in a season. His 18 quarterback hits and 15 tackles for loss are tied with end Adrian Clayborn for second on the team, four behind linebacker Lavonte David.
Even before his endurance was challenged, McCoy prepared his body for it. In the offseason, he wore a helmet and a weight vest during workouts. He reported to training camp at least 10 pounds below his ideal playing weight of 295.
"It was a reminder of how hard it was going to be to run and train … in the heat with the pads on," McCoy said, "and how my body felt when I was overweight. It doesn't feel good."
As the third overall pick in the 2009 draft, McCoy has always been compared to the player chosen just ahead of him, Lions tackle Ndamukong Suh. While Suh racked up Pro Bowl numbers his first two seasons, McCoy tore both biceps and, Schiano said, was being described with the "b word" — bust.
But last season he stayed healthy for 16 games, recorded six sacks and was named a Pro Bowl starter. His performance this season has topped that, earning praise from, among others, Hall of Fame defensive tackle Warren Sapp.
"Ninety-nine (Sapp) always tells me 'violent hands,' " McCoy said. "Violence with everything you do. If you shed, it's violent. If you use your hands, it's violent. If you bull rush, it's violent. (Bucs special assistant) Butch Davis always told me the greatest … pass rushers in defensive line history were relentless."
To some, McCoy is a contradiction. He is a man of faith playing a violent game, gentle as a lamb off the field but a fierce competitor on it. He married his seventh-grade sweetheart, Ebony Foy, this year. McCoy was given the Good Guy award by the Pro Football Writers of America as the Bucs player most helpful and cooperative with the media this year.
Based on his humility, you wouldn't know he had a dime to spare, but next season he enters the final season of a five-year, $63.4 million contract headed for a bigger payday.
"Everything we're allowed to do is a privilege, especially to play in the National Football League," McCoy said. "I know it's not fun losing. But you're still getting to play every Sunday, so go out there and have fun with it. And while we're here, let's give it our all. And maybe it'll turn around. That's how my mind-set has been."