TAMPA — They returned to practice Wednesday with full pads and effort, the weight of a four-game losing streak somehow made lighter by an extra day off.
Pep had clearly returned to their step as Bucs players enthusiastically rotated to each tackling station at the start of the workout with nothing left to play for except pride and paychecks.
Linebacker Adam Hayward, who engaged in a sideline confrontation with assistant coach Bryan Cox during Sunday's 41-0 clubbing at New Orleans, spoke of the harmony between players and coaches.
He also dismissed a report on profootballtalk.com on Monday quoting an anonymous Bucs player asking rhetorically, "Can we send these coaches back to college?"
"(Wednesday) we had a great practice," Hayward said. "Everybody was flying around and getting to the ball. I mean, anybody can say anything on the Internet. But around here, you can see guys are ready to play and ready to work.
"We've got something to prove. When you get a butt-whipping like that, you don't want to end on a note like that. You want to go out there and fight and kind of be like, 'This is how I want to be remembered,' not being blown out 41-0. I know these guys, and I see it in their eyes, and they want to play football."
At 6-8, the Bucs were eliminated from the playoffs by their blowout loss to the Saints, prompting coach Greg Schiano to give players Monday and Tuesday off with the expectation they would arrive to work Wednesday recharged and ready to prepare for Sunday's home finale against the Rams.
"It's not fun, but you've got to find the positive in it," Schiano said. "There is opportunity for our future development right now where we are. But this is a win-now league, and this is a win-now coach, and we are going to try and win Sunday, and that's what we're here to do, and that's what we're going to do."
To that end, Schiano has no plans to use the Bucs' final two games to evaluate seldom-used players or extend careers by limiting the workload of starters such as rookie running back Doug Martin.
The former Boise State star was limited to a career-low 16 yards on nine carries versus the Saints. With 1,250 rushing yards, he needs 295 against the Rams and the Falcons in the season finale to break James Wilder team season record of 1,544.
"I think it would be not a good time in our program's development to say, 'Hey, Doug, why don't you just cool off for next year,' " Schiano said. "I don't think that's where we are as a program. If he was on a veteran-laden team that for whatever reason didn't make the playoffs this year (and had) been in it for the last five or six years, maybe we want to rest him. But that's not the case."
The Bucs also are hoping for a bounce-back game from quarterback Josh Freeman, who is coming off one of his worst performances of the year. Against the Saints he threw four interceptions and lost a fumble.
"I think the thing nobody can argue with is the high level of execution that has been on display at times there on the field," offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan said of Freeman. "We can go on and on about some of the positives, and you certainly can point out some of the things that can improve. … It's an ongoing process. We are excited across the entire body of work, a lot of good things.
"Everything that doesn't go well is on me. I accept responsibility for that. … In terms of inconsistency, I think the thing that really jumps out is when we turn the ball over or we have the penalties. If we can just tighten that up, hopefully it can get us back to where we want to be."