(Editor's note: In addition to his team reports, Jason Cole will share some off-field highlights and other observations of his preseason travel.)
TAMPA, Fla. – If you have an appreciation for what Florida was in the 1960s and 1970s, the Tampa/St. Petersburg area still has plenty of that combined with an abundance of modern charms, particularly for those who think life is a cabaret. Unlike South Florida, there's still plenty of coast and beach area that is free of high-rise structures and all the traffic that goes with those buildings. The beaches are loaded with off-beat, funky bars. If you like just driving around, the CBS Construction homes that make up most of the area aren't much to look at, particularly after the sun has bleached them to a pale, faded hue. However, there are these really interesting purple flowering trees in the area. They're either Crape Myrtles (according to long-time Tampa Tribune beat writer Roy Cummings) or Chinaberrys. Not exactly sure, but they're like something you might see in a Claude Monet painting. Yeah, yeah, Monet never made it to Florida, but the image works nonetheless. In fact, if Monet had ever come to the Sunshine (and rain) State, he probably would have done some interesting stuff. Take the portraits of Cap Martin Near Menton and project what he'd do under the capricious lighting of Florida against the Gulf Coast.
The Buccaneers are going to be a lot more interesting than many people think. Don't take that to mean they're going to compete for a playoff spot just yet. When you have the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints in your division and another team (Atlanta Falcons) that's further along in the rebuilding process, it's a little hard to imagine making a huge leap into playoff contention this season. That said, the base of talent on this team is better than most people know. Specifically, QB Josh Freeman(notes) has the goods to be a great player. Not just good, but really great. Aside from the arm strength and just enough scrambling ability to be a threat outside the pocket, Freeman is a gym rat – a smart gym rat, at that. Freeman regularly spent off days this offseason running individual practices with the wide receivers, which included his own organizational chart of drills and throws he wanted to do. Freeman, whose father Ron was a professional player as well, gets the big picture about what it takes to be great in the NFL. … The Bucs offensive line looks to be solid with the likes of Jeff Faine(notes), Donald Penn(notes) and Davin Joseph(notes). The key is to keep Faine healthy after injuries cost him time last year. When he wasn't there, the interior blocking for both the run and the pass were brutal. … Aside from rookie WR Mike Williams, who looks like the real deal, the receiving corps is still really problematic. Fellow rookie Arrelious Benn(notes) is a work in progress. Veteran Reggie Brown(notes) looks solid-yet-unspectacular and fellow vets Maurice Stovall(notes) and Michael Clayton(notes) may not be long for this squad. … The questions about CB Aqib Talib(notes) have nothing to do with talent. He has plenty of that and probably is physically among the top six or seven corners in the game right now. The concern is whether Talib will mature. The reports right now are that Talib has made significant progress in that regard. … While DT Gerald McCoy(notes) has been everything advertised as the No. 3 overall pick, second-round pick DT Brian Price(notes) has been nursing a hamstring injury for the past three weeks. In the offseason, Price impressed veterans, but there is now growing concern.
After the beach and the bars, what else?
If you like taking a drive, head down the coast to Everglades National Park, which adjoins Big Cypress National Preserve. The wildlife, featuring plenty of alligators and birds, is awesome. There's some great canoeing to be done, particularly if you start off at the Everglades City location. In fact, if you really have some Bear Grylls to you, try the 99-mile canoe trip from Everglades City all the way to Flamingo at the southern tip of the national park. This is not a trip for the unprepared. It takes a week and you have to carry the water in with you. But it's truly amazing stuff, featuring platforms built in the middle of the water to sleep on. There are only about three months of the year to do this without getting eaten alive by the various insects that make the Everglades home, but it's one of those once-in-a-lifetime challenges.
I decided to pay homage to the Gap Band, which sadly lost bassist Robert Wilson on Monday. Start, of course, with "Early in the Morning" jump to "Beep a Freak" and finish with "You Dropped a Bomb on Me" and you better be moving. Yeah, most people might say that the Gap Band was middle of the road, harmless stuff. They didn't exactly change the course of modern music, but they were really fun. Their archives are filled with plenty of classic stuff.
Speaking of funky bars, Ted Peter's Famous Smoked Fish may not be on the water, but it's a great throwback spot. It's an outdoor bar featuring a really good fish dip and some great sandwiches. On a warm Florida day, this is a perfect place to have a beer and the smoked salmon is stunningly good. They make it in a little shack across the parking lot from the bar, which adds to the ambiance. The lone negative is that the dude working in the smoke shack needs a serious attitude adjustment.