Buccaneer Training camp - Ray Perkins' style
Training camp opens for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this week. On Friday, July 25 the Bucs start training at the Celebration Hotel in central Florida. The Bucs training camp complex is part of the Disney Wide World of Sports tourist attraction. Training camp is an attraction at “The Happiest Place on Earth?” Boy, have things changed since Ray Perkins was in charge.

Twenty-one years ago this summer Ray Perkins embarked on what may have been one of the most brutal training camps in NFL history. Instead of the standard two-a-day practice schedule (full-pad practice in the morning, break for lunch and team meetings, followed by a full-pad practice in the afternoon), Perkins instituted a THREE-a-day practice schedule.

The legacy of this training camp regimen can be seen today in the fact that very few teams work their players as Perkins worked his. The results of the Buccaneers during those seasons were an object lesson for the NFL on what not to do during training camp. That lesson still impacts the League today.

Perkins’ NFL version of “Survivor” started on July 20, 1987 at Pepin-Rood Stadium on the campus of the University of Tampa near downtown. Perkins scheduled practices from Monday through Saturday with full sessions scheduled from 8:30 am – 9:30 am, 11:45 am – 12:45 pm and 6 – 7:30 in the evening. Keep in mind this schedule was done during July and August when Tampa averages 90 – 100 degrees and 90% + humidity.

As a student under Paul “Bear” Bryant at the University of Alabama, Perkins was simply mirroring the training regimen of his mentor. While at Texas A&M Bryant had run a summer camp in the prairie town of Junction, Texas. The camp was so infamously brutal a best-selling book and movie were based on it. “The Junction Boys” told the story of the Aggies 1954 camp where more than 100 boys came to camp and only about two dozen survived to play.

Many fans had been appalled by Bryant’s tactics and even the head coach admitted years later that he had made a mistake in working his team so hard. Perkins however thought a “Junction Boys” type camp was just the thing Tampa Bay needed.

The team Perkins inherited had won 4 games over the previous two seasons and he wanted to exorcise those that couldn’t help him turn around the fortunes of the franchise. To that end Perkins drafted 20 players in the 1987 draft and brought more than 100 bodies to the small soccer stadium. Not since the inaugural training camp in 1976 had the Bucs brought so many players to training camp. Original coach John McKay ran through 140 bodies before settling on his roster.

When Perkins gathered the team together he promised them absolutely nothing but hard work. “This is just an honest opinion,” he relayed to the media. “There are very few spots on this team I can say, ‘This guy is going to be our starter.’ I can count them on one hand.”

For the first six days the Bucs engaged in brutal full-gear practices. By the time Sunday rolled around, the players were ready to drop. “Man, I don’t think I’ve run that much in my life,” said Mark Carrier, a rookie wide receiver in 1987.

At first the players seemed to appreciate what Perkins was going for. Cornerback Jeremiah Castille, who had also played for Bear Bryant at Alabama, knew that Perkins was merely trying to build the Bucs the way The Bear had built the Crimson Tide. “He (Bryant) motivated by driving you to a point where you think you don’t have anything left, but you find something,” Castille said in explaining the motives of Perkins.

Castille found something alright: unemployment. Perkins released the veteran corner weeks later. Castille may have been one of the lucky ones. As camp progressed, the players may have still appreciated what the coach was trying to do but their bodies did not. At one point during camp 24 players were on the injured list. As the temperature increased so did the number of mental errors and physical mistakes that come from fatigue and heat exhaustion.

The teams first closed scrimmage contained multiple holding penalties, missed snap counts and incorrect routes, something that would plague the team throughout Perkins’ tenure. The head coach wasn’t concerned because he felt the conditioning of the team would pay dividends come the regular season. “They’re probably more tired today than they will be in the fourth quarter of a game.”

Those words would come back to haunt Perkins. In 1987 the Buccaneers split their first two games before the NFL players strike resulted in replacement players filling in for three weeks. When the regulars came back, the effects of three practices a day in 96 degree weather reared its ugly head. The Bucs raced out to a 20-0 lead over the Chicago Bears and then wilted in the fourth quarter, losing 27-26.

The next week the Bucs took another 20-0 lead in Green Bay before allowing several Packer scores but managed to hang on for a 23-17 win. In St. Louis the following Sunday, the Bucs blew a 28-3 lead in less than fifteen minutes losing to the Cardinals 31-28. In all the Bucs were outscored 55-3 in the fourth quarter of those three games and looked dead in each one. The lethargic legs of the Buccaneers torpedoed the rest of the season as the Bucs lost their final eight games to finish 4-11.

While Perkins wouldn’t always use three-a-days during his tenure as Buccaneer coach, he did believe in physical practices. During his tenure blown leads would become a staple of the Buccaneers. The most notable were blown leads against San Francisco and Detroit in what was shaping up to be a very special 1989 season and a 17-13 loss to Dallas in 1990 that Paul Stewart is still trying to recover from. Even his signature victory as Buccaneer coach, a 1989 42-35 victory over the Bears, saw the Bucs blow a big lead.

This is the great conundrum in evaluating the Perkins era. The man did bring better talent to the Buccaneers (Keith McCants and Danny Peebles notwithstanding). The Bucs did perform better under his leadership than under Leeman Bennett. The defense was much more physical and the offense more professional. But the inability to hold a lead or maintain any kind of consistency from week to week could have been directly related to the team wearing itself out in July and August.

When you watch the Bucs train this summer, watch to see if any of them complain about exhaustion. Feel free to tell them it could be worse; they could have been with Perkins’ peg-leg bunch of the late 80’s.

Denis Crawford, 26 July 2008