TAMPA — It was still early into the first training camp practice Sunday when Mike Evans caught a pass from Tom Brady along the sideline, took eight steps and leaped over a snow fence into the crowd of fans who rose to greet the Bucs receiver.
With screams and pats on the back, Evans was helped back onto the playing surface.
In that moment of sheer normalcy ― and maybe carelessness, given the COVID-19 protocols ― it felt like football was back. Thankfully, so were those wanting to cheer their lungs out for the defending Super Bowl champions.
“My momentum carried me over and the fans sent me back like they always do, they pushed me back over,” Evans said, though a video confirmed his foray into fandom was intentional. “It’s exciting having fans back. There’s some normalcy. That’s why we play the game for our fans, and it was good to see them.”
As hard as the Bucs are trying to move on from winning Super Bowl 55, there was a different feel to Sunday’s practice. Most obvious was the inclusion of about 2,000 (mostly) season pass members who were permitted to watch practice.
But let’s be honest. It had only been a few days since the Bucs visited the White House to commemorate their Super Bowl 55 win over Kansas City, and on Thursday they had a private ceremony at the MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre to receive their championship rings.
Until last season, Evans had never participated in a playoff game, and now he was starting training camp with arguably still the best team in the NFL quarterbacked by seven-time champion Tom Brady.
“I’ve been waiting for this for seven years, now,” Evans said. “I mean, that’s what we want. When we were going to Pittsburgh my rookie year, we wanted to beat the Pittsburgh Steelers. Now, everybody wants to come beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. So that’s what you want, and we look forward to the challenge this year.”
Bucs coach Bruce Arians has preached that 2021 is a new year. While that’s true, the Bucs have 22 returning starters and didn’t look like they took much of a break since beating the Kansas Chiefs in February at Raymond James Stadium.
Arians said he pounded home his starting-over mantra at the team meeting when players reported to camp on Saturday.
“Don’t assume anything. We’re starting from scratch,” he said. “That was last year’s team. This team, we can’t assume we know anything. We’ve got to go back to the beginning and start all over, listening in meetings and learn more from film what happened last year.”
No team has repeated as Super Bowl champs since, well, Brady did it with the Patriots in the 2003-04 seasons.
Arians said what he was looking for was the conditioning of his players and execution. The latter was so good that the Bucs finished 27 minutes earlier than scheduled.
“We had a good start to the season. I like where we’re at,” Arians said. “We could be a hell of a lot better, obviously. We have to emphasize more the second half of practice in this heat, because we talk about winning the second half of a game and they coincide. But I’m pretty pleased with where we’re at.”
Two players who did not practice were tight ends O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate. Howard is coming off a season-ending Achilles injury and Brate is on the active Physically Unable to Perform list with an undisclosed injury. Receiver Antonio Brown inexplicably missed nearly the first half of practice.
Arians wasn’t entertaining questions about it.
“Let’s just start with, I’m not answering any questions about who practiced, who didn’t practice, why they didn’t practice,” Arians said.
Brady, who played last season with a torn medial collateral ligament in his left knee, moved around well and wore a brace that he let fall to his ankle for most of the practice Saturday.
While Brady and the first-team offense and defense practiced on the west field closest to the fans, the non-starters and rookies worked on an adjacent field to maximize their repetitions.
Bucs running back Leonard Fournette looked even bigger and more powerful wearing No. 7 as he begins his battle for the starting tailback job with Ronald Jones.
Fournette joined the Bucs only a few days before the start of the 2020 season after being released by Jacksonville. His postseason performance earned him the nicknames of “Playoff Lenny” and “Lombardi Lenny.” But he’s bought into Arians’ directive.
“It’s over with now. I know we’re champs and everything. But it’s time to start over. A fresh start,” Fournette said. “That’s in the past now. Nobody remembers who won the Super Bowl four or five years ago. Our biggest thing to focus on is what’s next.”
Regardless, the fans assembled in the humid heat Sunday said winning the Super Bowl has only heightened expectations. “Having the fans here and having that energy again makes it feel like football season again,” cornerback Carlton Davis said.
“I’m very excited, we’re going back-to-back and win the Super Bowl again. Tom Brady, MVP of the year,” said Justin Boone of Tampa, a season pass member for seven seasons.
“The atmosphere is great. We’re all pumped up and ready to win it again. ... I’m putting the house on it. The people are here. The atmosphere is incredible. Tom Brady brought a whole culture change to Tampa. We listened to people talk crap for the last 15 years, now we get to talk crap.”
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