PHILADELPHIA — When he made the jump from Rutgers University to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, coach Greg Schiano realized he needed to bring a bigger axe with him if he wanted to keep “chopping wood.”
Colorful mantras and fiery pregame speeches may work well with college football players, but it’s tougher to get through to NFL veterans.
“In college, you have a group of people who are 18 to 22 years old and they’re all doing the same thing, they’re going to school,” said Schiano, whose Buccaneers will face the Eagles at Raymond James Stadium today. “In the NFL, a lot of guys are in different stages in life. You might have a 23 or 24-year-old rookie and a 37-year-old veteran (such as Bucs cornerback Ronde Barber). It’s really a wide range, so you need to get to know your players and what their situation is so you can help them help themselves.
“They have to know you care. They understand it’s a business and so do the coaches. Everybody understands the competitive nature of that. But as soon as you let them know you care and you can help them, they’ll listen. If they think you don’t care about them, they won’t listen to you.”
The Bucs evidently are listening to Schiano. A year after stumbling to a 4-12 record under coach Raheem Morris, Schi-ano, 46, has the Bucs contending for a playoff spot. Atlanta (11-1) already has clinched the NFC South title, but the Bucs (6-6) enter today’s game just one game behind Seattle (7-5) in the race for the second wild-card berth.
There have been some
personnel changes since last season — rookie running back Doug Martin and wide receiver Vincent Jackson are among some key newcomers — but this is largely the same Tampa team that struggled a year ago.
The biggest move Schiano made was changing the culture. Everyone is held accountable, regardless of past accolades or salary. Everyone is encouraged to go all out to the final whistle, even if it rankles some opponents. Schiano took a lot of criticism earlier this season when his players charged at New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning as he was preparing to perform an end-of-the-game kneeldown in the final seconds of the Bucs’ 41-34 loss on Sept. 16.
“I’m not surprised coach Schiano’s having success in Tampa,” said Cincinnati Bengals long snapper Clark Harris, a Stafford Township native and Rutgers graduate. “He’s a very good coach. He’s a good disciplinarian and is very good at making people buy into his system.
“He’s not tough to play for, he’s just disciplined and demanding. He makes it very clear that if you’re not willing to do things his way, he’ll find somebody who will.”
Schiano has had a big influence on Bucs quarterback Josh Freeman.
Once regarded as one of the league’s top young passers, Freeman had a terrible season in 2011. He led the NFC with 22 interceptions and had 16 touchdown passes. This season, he’s returned to his Pro Bowl-level form with 23 touchdown passes against only eight interceptions. Among NFC quarterbacks, only New Orleans’ Drew Brees (31) and Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers (29) have thrown more touchdown passes.
“He’s instilled a sense of trust and accountability,” Freeman said. “But preparation is a big key with him. He’s instilled a one-day-at-a-time, one-game-at-a-time mentality. We don’t worry about the big picture.”
The Bucs’ picture is infinitely clearer than the Eagles’.
Their season is very similar to the one the Bucs’ muddled through a year ago. The Eagles are 3-9 and have lost eight straight. The Bucs closed last season with 10 consecutive defeats.
Eagles coach Andy Reid is expected to meet the same fate as Morris did a year ago, when he was fired.
Schiano is one of Reid’s biggest fans. Both Reid and his wife, Tammy, provided emotional and financial support for Eric LeGrand, a former Rutgers football player who was paralyzed in 2010.
“Coach Reid is a special, special person,” Schiano said. “He did some things with our (Rutgers) football team, but I know how Andy is and he wouldn’t want it mentioned, so I’ll keep it that way. But that’s my impression of their organization, what they are willing to do to help.”
There are a few college coaches on the list of possible candidates to succeed Reid, including University of Oregon’s Chip Kelly and Stanford’s David Shaw.
Like Schiano, who was an assistant with the Chicago Bears for three seasons (1996-98) before going to Rutgers, Shaw has some NFL coaching experience. He was a quality-control coach with the Eagles under Ray Rhodes in 1997 before spending four seasons with Oakland (1998-2001) and Baltimore (2002-05).
“Having coached in the NFL has really helped me,” Schiano said. “It gave me a frame of reference. But there’s really no formula (for making the jump from college to the NFL). Just make sure it’s what you want. I love it, but it’s not for everybody.”
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