All summer long, Geno Hayes had it pounded into his helmet that he needed to calm down. Drink some decaf. Listen to some Sinatra. Take a chill pill. Hayes, who turned 23 last month, might be the Bucs' most excitable and electric player on defense. But the Bucs believed their weakside linebacker needed to go unplugged to rely more on discipline, less on instincts. So in the first half of the Bucs' 17-14 victory over the Browns last week, Hayes went stealth. He clammed up like a mime. And he made a funny discovery: His game — and the Bucs defense, for that matter — didn't make much noise. "I want to say I was just more calm. Not as excited in the game," Hayes said. "I was just really kind of just trying to conserve energy. It's something I can't do; I've got to go out there and play ball. "So the second half, I came out and let loose and played how I am. I played my game, played my ball and just started going back to what I did and stopped trying to play like a quiet playmaker. That's not me."
Hayes led the Bucs with 12 tackles, two for losses — including a stop of Browns running back Jerome Harrison for a 4-yard loss in the fourth quarter on second and 9 from the Browns 8-yard line.
That play was significant for two reasons. Not only did the field position help set up the Bucs' winning touchdown, but Hayes had blown the same play twice in the game.
"Geno is kind of Ronde Barber-ish," Bucs coach Raheem Morris said. "What I mean by that is they're a little vigilante at times. They make plays outside of the box, but part of that is what makes those guys great.
"He has some skills I can't teach. I don't think any of us can. Giving him surface, taking his body away, wiggling around blocks and he's always going to have two tackles for loss. He's also going to have a possible splash play or blitz; that's just the nature of his beast. So you try to contain him, so to speak. And in the second half, he let it go. But he did communicate. So I made a step."
If the Bucs are going to continue moving forward, Hayes will have to step his game up against strong rushing teams such as the Panthers, today's opponent.
The former Florida State star is playing one of the pre-eminent positions in the Bucs defense and would have to stuff wads of paper around his feet to fill the shoes of Derrick Brooks.
But none of that bothers Hayes, who is putting his own spin on the position. As a first-year starter, Hayes was the only Bucs player to record a stat in every defensive category. He was second to Barrett Ruud on the club in tackles with 136 and had three sacks, two interceptions, seven passes defensed with one forced fumble and a fumble recovery.
"I feel no pressure at all," Hayes said. "God made me who I am, and I know it. My confidence level is there, and I know my team believes in me. I just go out there and put it on tape."
A year ago, Hayes drew fire from Morris and others for being undisciplined and basically freelancing at times or guessing wrong. But he has learned to prepare better and watches an extra two or three hours of film every night at home. The extra work began to pay off in the preseason.
"It will get to the point where you're taking chances within the defense," Ruud said. "You have this gap and you say, 'I'm going to hit this faster than I normally hit it because I see this coming or I expect it to come, as opposed to I'm going to hit this gap that's wrong.
"I think the big step is when you make your natural, instinctive plays but within the defense. The play that he made in the red zone, that was within the defense. That was what he was supposed to do. He saw it real fast and shot the gap. So that was a great play."
There are bound to be more.
For Hayes, finding the right formula between guile and guts is his mission. His personal search has just begun, but Hayes already recognizes what he wants when he sees it.
He watched Ravens Pro Bowl linebacker Ray Lewis walk the line of controlled rage in Baltimore's 10-9 win over the Jets on Monday night. Lewis was fundamentally perfect but played with sound and fury from the coin toss to the final whistle.
"You've got to find a spark. And I've got to be that spark the whole game," Hayes said. "(Lewis) is excited the whole game, and teams feed off that kind of stuff. That's what I was thinking.
"That's what I want to be. Hot as fire. And cool as ice."
Bucs (1-0) at Panthers (0-1)
1 p.m., Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte, N.C.
TV/radio: Ch. 13; 620-AM, 103.5-FM. Line: Panthers by 3 ½