BRADENTON — As more than four dozen Buccaneers banished to a football field 50 miles away from their usual workplace emerged for a steamy morning workout, they stumbled upon the most unexpected of sights.
The man who, for many players, is the symbol of their frustration was standing barely 30 yards away.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, in town to speak to the league's incoming rookies with union executive director DeMaurice Smith, made a surprise appearance at the Bucs' unofficial minicamp at IMG Academies.
The bizarre sequence came at a time when players and coaches are prohibited from contacting one another and players are banned from entering team facilities. The Bucs are using IMG's fields only because they're unable to take advantage of their usual digs — state-of-the-art, $30 million One Buc Place — as a result of the NFL lockout.
While Smith briefly mingled with quarterback Josh Freeman and other players, Goodell awkwardly kept his distance, observing from the sideline. There was, however, one very big exception: Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, the man who began a trend of hugging Goodell on stage at the NFL draft, did so again during a brief encounter in the weight room before practice.
"I don't know how my teammates feel about me right now," McCoy joked. "I was his friend before the lockout. I'm not going to not be his friend because of the lockout. … But he was with Smith, so that's a good sign. I'm optimistic about that. When I saw him, I gave him a hug and everybody was like, 'Really?' I don't care. They'll get over it."
Mostly, players stayed away. That's not to suggest Goodell's presence went unnoticed.
Having jetted to Florida with Smith on a private plane Tuesday night and joining him on stage at a rookie orientation in Sarasota put on by the union, Goodell and Smith gave fans reason to be hopeful the season will be saved. A union spokesman said the NFLPA considered the joint appearance a positive development.
Bucs center Jeff Faine, the team's union representative, hoped Goodell's presence had another result.
"Hopefully what this shows to the owners is there's more to football than money," Faine said. "We're out here on our own dime, out here getting better and hopefully putting on a good product out there for our fans."
Those fans appear closer to seeing the return of their game after more than three months of the league's work stoppage. Goodell and Smith, after speaking with and taking questions from rookies, emerged together and offered more optimism about their negotiations. They returned to Minneapolis for further talks.
"Both of us wanted to come out and tell you that we're continuing to work hard," Smith said. " … Obviously what we're doing on the business of football on the macro scale is about getting a fair deal done and trying to get back to the game and business of football as quickly as possible."
Goodell said: "It was a great opportunity for us to be able to sit with the rookies. They obviously had lots of questions. We answered the questions as best we could, but you all know that we're under restrictions (from the courts). … We both have great respect for the players, and this is an important few days. And we're going to get back to work."
If that work is fruitful, Bucs players and the rest of the NFL could soon return to their facilities and other postponed matters, such as free agency, can get under way. But players, while encouraged, remain cautious.
"I think we're getting closer," Faine said. "I'm hearing reports that we've agreed on terms, through the media. If we've agreed on terms, we wouldn't be here. So there's still some room to go."
That's why, Faine said, players can't let down their guards. Asked whether he was more optimistic because of Goodell's and Smith's joint appearance, he said, "No. I think they just happened to be in the same place at the same time. I think we still have some room to go.
"We're still together and fighting for what we think is right."