Greg Schiano convinced the Tampa Bay Buccaneers that the sooner they adopted his way of doing things, the sooner they'd win under the first-year coach.
It didn't take long for a quick return on his promise.
"Change is never easy, but once everybody adjusted to the change and actually dove in and bought in to what he was coaching" things fell into place, defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said. "He gave us a game plan and we just came out, played to the best of our ability and played Buc football."
Sunday's season-opening 16-10 victory stopped a 10-game losing streak that prompted the firing of Raheem Morris and hiring of Schiano, the former Rutgers coach who has spent much of his first eight months on the job changing the culture in a locker room that lacked discipline and structure.
The opening day performance was particularly sweet, not only because it came in Schiano's debut but because two of the losses during the Bucs' prolonged skid came to the NFC South rival Panthers by a combined score of 86-35.
"It feels 10 times better. It's not even close," tackle Jeremy Trueblood said of ending the drought. "It feels good because it was a win. It feels even better because it's a divisional opponent, and divisional games are always better for us to win."
The Bucs handled Carolina by building an early lead, frustrating Cam Newton with two interceptions and three sacks, and limiting the Panthers to just 10 yards rushing. Offensively, they ran the ball effectively, didn't take any unnecessary chances in the passing game and -- perhaps most significantly -- did not have any turnovers.
"The first game is always important. It kind of sets the tone, especially with learning a new system," said quarterback Josh Freeman, who completed 16 of 24 passes for 138 yards, said. "We've got a new coach, a lot of new faces. It was important for team confidence, not saying we're a group that lacks confidence, but we had a lot of young guys that stepped up."
Besides winning, what pleased Schiano most was protecting the football. The Bucs were last in the NFL in turnover margin with 16 more giveaways than takeaways last season.
Freeman threw for just 16 yards in the second half and Martin's biggest gainer was a 15-yarder that helped the Bucs run out the clock after Carolina pulled within 16-10. Overall, Tampa Bay had the ball for nearly 15 minutes longer than the Panthers, rushing for 130 yards while being outgained 301-258 overall.
Schiano stopped short of calling the performance a blueprint for how he hopes to win. That is with the exception of the emphasis he's placed on not turning the ball over.
"I think the ball security absolutely. It doesn't matter what plan you put together -- 60 passes, zero passes -- you better hold on to the football," Schiano said.
"There was give and take, and that's the way a game is going to be. I don't expect to ever clearly dominate every play," the coach added. "But the ball? No doubt. That is the beginning and the end."
Rookies Doug Martin, Mark Barron and Lavonte David made their first pro starts. Martin rushed for 95 yards on 24 carries and caught four passes for 23 yards, Barron had a big sideline hit on Panthers receiver Steve Smith and deflected a deep pass intended for Louis Murphy with Tampa Bay clinging to a 13-7 lead, and David handled defensive play calls and had a team-leading six tackles from his weakside linebacker spot.
The Bucs also got a monster performance from the oldest player on the field, 37-year-old Ronde Barber. In his 200th consecutive start, the five-time Pro Bowl selection had five tackles -- two for losses -- as well as an interception, a sack and a key stop on Newton, who was tackled for no gain on third down from the Bucs 3 yard line, forcing Carolina to settle for a late field goal.
"This is a completely different experience for me. Obviously with the new coaching staff, we all know how much it's changed. I've really been pushed, and coach really has made an effort to push me into a leadership role with this team, and I'm enjoying it," said Barber, who in his 16th season.
"There are a lot of impressionable guys on this football team, young and impressionable guys that have great futures ahead of them. They told me part of you coming back was so you can influence those guys," he added. "I'm really taking that to heart."
Next up is a trip to New York to face the defending Super Bowl champion Giants (0-1), who lost their opener to Dallas.
Barber clearly is excited about the direction Schiano is leading the team.
"He does a great job of preaching this is a one-game season. This is the Carolina season. Next week will be the New York season. We'll play them one at a time and search for wins the best way that we can," Barber said.
"I think guys have bought in," Barber added. "His big saying when he first walked into the building was `the sooner you guys buy in to what we're trying to do, the sooner we'll win.' That certainly came to fruition" on Sunday.
FOX 13 / WTVT-TV
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