TAMPA — There are few things more disconcerting for an NFL player than when his coaches begin avoiding eye contact, especially just before final cuts.
Ask the Bucs' Tim Crowder, who let the obvious disinterest of his former coaches in Denver distract him from making an impression on them.
The outcome was that Crowder's eventual release from the Broncos landed him in Tampa Bay, where he now has the Bucs' undivided attention.
"I kind of got too distracted by everything, thinking I didn't have a chance when I really did," said Crowder, reflecting on how he went from a touted second-round pick to merely trying to break into the Bucs' rotation in 2009.
"I kind of cut myself. It was concentration. I didn't want to be there any more. I felt like a zombie. The coaches don't speak to you. You could see the handwriting on the wall. You walk down the hall and you see your own coach, and he doesn't say a word to you. … But that's just the business of it."
Now in his fourth season, the former University of Texas star is rejuvenated with the Bucs, showing he can be equally or more productive than the team's starting ends, even coming off the bench.
Most impressive, Crowder played an assortment of roles in coach Raheem Morris' defense. He was assigned to cover Cleveland's platoon of tight ends in Week 1 and was a pass-rush specialist against Carolina in Week 2, recording two sacks and a forced fumble.
Just imagine what he might do as a starter. Then again, he is — as far as the Bucs are concerned.
"Really, we have three starting ends," defensive line coach Todd Wash said, referring to Crowder as well as left end Kyle Moore and right end Stylez White.
The Bucs prefer Crowder coming in off the bench, giving them fresh legs in a variety of ways while freeing him up for one of his most vital roles, on special teams. He plays about 35 to 40 snaps on defense, according to Wash, not much less than he would as a full-time starter. But Crowder is so skilled on special teams that coaches intentionally preserve some of his energy for use in the kicking game.
And his best asset is his versatility. Crowder cites playing in Denver's 3-4 defense as the reason for his understanding of pass coverage, something edge rushers must do in 3-4 schemes. And, if it comes to it, Crowder's willing to do just about anything the Bucs need.
"Hey, I was a tight end in high school, so I can catch, too, if they want me at tight end," the 25-year-old cracked.
Having been through his travails in Denver, Crowder has a unique perspective that allows him to look beyond labels to recognize his value to the team — starter or not.
"A lot of guys kind of get distracted over that starter thing too much," he said. "I feel like early in my career, that's what I did. Now, my mind-set is to just destroy the (opponent) when I'm in there. No matter who's in front of me, can't nobody block me. That's the mind-set that I have.
"You can start the game, but if the backup is getting 40 plays and you're only getting 20, what's the point of starting? You just get to run out of the tunnel. That's it. I don't really get wrapped up in that starting thing too much."
Said Wash: "He sees himself as a starter, he prepares as a starter and he's got the talent to be a starter. It's just not the role he has on this football team because of the special teams emphasis that he has. … But we're very excited about what we have in him. Hey, he was a second-round pick and things didn't work. But sometimes it's just a matter of a change of scenery and players respond."
Crowder has had some other changes, too, like three switches at defensive coordinator in his first three seasons. That stunted his development and made it harder for him to stand out. But Crowder cites having continuity under Morris as a key to what is shaping up as a breakout season for him. With the Broncos, Crowder played extensively in 13 games as a rookie in 2007 but had just six appearances in 2008. New coach Josh McDaniels cut him a year later.
He has come a long way from those days in Denver, where he learned some hard lessons.
"I blame everything on myself," Crowder said. "I had already counted myself out before the chips had fallen. When (coaches) bring their own guys in, I started feeling like I was the odd (man) out. So, I let that dictate my play."
Now, Crowder is so valuable that his play is beginning to dictate whether opposing offenses have success. And as for his coaches, seems they can't get enough of him.
Stephen F. Holder can be reached at [email protected]