Bucs see positive offseason gains despite relying on virtual workouts

Linebacker Devin White among Bucs training from home (1:25)

Prior to the pandemic, Bucs linebacker Devin White was traveling 45 minutes each way from his home in Louisiana, to see a personal trainer. When stay-at-home orders were enforced, the Bucs sent him workout equipment. (1:25)

TAMPA, Fla. -- It’s just before noon on a May weekday, and Tampa Bay Buccaneers safety Jordan Whitehead, cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting and offensive tackle Donovan Smith are all headed to work -- inside their garage gyms, which have become makeshift home offices during the coronavirus pandemic.

Per league and NFLPA rules, teams are allowed to conduct their offseason programs -- classroom instruction and workouts -- only virtually. Facilities remain closed to players and coaches. The league did, however, begin allowing a small number of operations-level employees and injured players needing medical treatment to enter facilities this week.

The virtual offseason program was originally intended to last three weeks, ending no later than May 15, but the league recently extended it by another two weeks to May 29 because of ongoing concerns about the coronavirus.

Whitehead -- who already downed a nice breakfast of pancakes, eggs and bacon -- checks his phone to see what lifts he’ll be doing today. So does Murphy-Bunting, who just completed an hourlong yoga session. Smith is assembling his playlist, trying to figure out what music won’t draw complaints from neighbors, who are also working from home. He can’t wear headphones doing sprints and prowler pushes.

“Mondays and Wednesdays are typically upper-body days and Tuesdays and Thursdays are lower body,” Murphy-Bunting said, referring to the lifting portion of the workouts. There’s field work, too. “Tuesdays and Thursdays are speed days and field-work days. Mondays and Wednesdays are more tempo [runs].”

Players receive their workouts for the day on a specially designed app they can access on their mobile devices. While the creation of an app -- including testing and working out all the bugs -- could take several months, the Bucs had already been working on one since last July and merely modified it to accommodate the virtual element.

“Luckily for us, we were able to pull that together quickly,” said Anthony Piroli, head of the team's strength and conditioning. “We were hoping to roll it out this upcoming fall camp for our guys to use in-house, but it was a great opportunity for us."

Workouts, which include video demonstrations, are based on player position groups as well as equipment availability. On a leg day, for example, they’ll perform squats and split squats or lunges for pushing movements, primarily working the quads and glutes. For pulling movements that work the hamstrings, they’ll do dead lifts and some variation of a hamstring curl.

There are options for customization, such as exercises for a player who has a muscular imbalance or a previous injury. One of Whitehead’s goals was to improve his hamstring strength this offseason, especially with all the sprinting he does as a defensive back.

“My hamstrings, and pretty much just like being explosive,” Whitehead said. “For me specifically, just from having a history of injured hamstrings, I just gotta stay focused on those."

Players log their workouts. After a warm-up, they do three or four sets of each exercise. They then are required to submit videos through the app of themselves doing the exercises. Five members of the strength and conditioning staff are on standby to receive the videos, checking form and looking for any discrepancies.

“The greatest thing that you always worry about with guys being away is the technical aspect of it, from a safety standpoint. That’s why we’ve done everything possible to let the guys know that they can send more videos than the requirement for the day if necessary,” Piroli said.

In addition to the lifts, the staff requests to see some form of a run for that day. Outside speed work or tempo work lasts anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour, and a total of 90 minutes with the incorporation of footwork, which Whitehead does on the tempo days. In the first week of the program, they received more than 1,000 videos from 86 players.

“I’d say the hardest part about the virtual thing is, when I’m working out, finding someone to record the workout to send in,” said starting inside linebacker Devin White.

“I would say that the guys have really adapted phenomenally well. I couldn’t be happier ... in regards to the guys participating fully and understanding it, being really engaged with the workouts,” Piroli said, adding that the staff has had to keep an open mind on exercises, as some players don’t have access to the same equipment and this is strictly voluntary.

“We’ve let them know from the onset that their health and safety is gonna be our No. 1 priority throughout this.”

If a player does get hurt in the virtual workout program, it is considered the same as a player getting hurt at the facility. If teams opt out of the virtual offseason program, injuries would not be covered, and the player could be placed on the non-football injury list as a result. The Bucs were willing to take that risk because they believed that not only did their staff have the capability and technology to monitor players, but they wanted them in top shape when they return.

Virtual offseason programs are not mandatory for teams, which are allowed to spend up to four hours a day, four days a week on workouts and classroom instruction. Players participating in the virtual offseason program are paid a minimum of $235 daily, and players with offseason workout bonuses written in their contracts are credited for their participation in these sessions. If a team is opting to conduct virtual meetings but not virtual workouts, they can still reward players for their attendance in that same capacity.

Teams were allowed to provide each player up to $1,500 in workout equipment. How far can that go? A power sled with a belt or harness can cost between $200 to $300. That doesn’t include weights to put on top of it. But a single blocking sled that a defensive lineman would use can cost $2,000. That doesn’t include the cost of shipping, which could be tacked onto the $1,500 allotment.

The key was reaching out to manufacturers quickly to get their hands on equipment.

“There were obviously a lot of things people were worried about from the standpoint of a lot of fitness companies not even being open anymore or are already sold out because of the general public,” said Piroli, who was instructed by ownership, general manager Jason Licht and coach Bruce Arians, “Get whatever you need to get these guys. No questions asked."

“It doesn’t take a whole lot of equipment to make sure that these guys are sprinting, doing their conditioning, doing the plyometric work that is necessary,” said Piroli, who added that the team sent equipment for players as far away as Quebec. “The means might change, but the actual goals we’re after stay the same.”

Whitehead took a proactive approach. Before the pandemic, he ordered a pull-up bar -- which also functions as a station for dips -- a squat rack and a bench for his garage. The team sent him resistance bands to increase the intensity even more.

It wasn’t as easy for White, though, who had very limited access to equipment at home. He was driving 45 minutes from his small hometown of Cotton Valley, Louisiana, to work with a personal trainer before the pandemic. Stores didn’t have much, if any, equipment either.

“They sent me, like, dumbbells, sleds, a lot of bands to do a lot of band work -- stuff like that,” White said.

Murphy-Bunting didn’t have any equipment before the pandemic but ordered several pieces on his own, including a treadmill. The Bucs then sent him a squat rack, dumbbells and resistance bands.

“I just had the stuff sent here, and me and my buddy put it together,” said Murphy-Bunting, who also has added ropes, stability balls and a punching bag. Two jerseys hang from the ceiling, along with a Buccaneers flag.

“I get on Instagram and FaceTime and I see, like, Sean turned his whole garage into a workout center, so he got everything,” White said.

“Mondays through Wednesday, we have our virtual meetings with [cornerbacks] Coach [Kevin] Ross, so we meet with him at about 5 o’clock and we do film, stuff like that,” Murphy-Bunting said. “And then after that, it’s kind of just relaxing. I have a pool here. I have everything I need at home, so I don’t really go out, or leave the house.”

Whitehead will often squeeze in another workout, as players are allowed to work out on their own, based on what they feel is best for their own bodies. For instance, he believes he needs to do a little bit of hamstring work every day. He also has used this time to try new exercises.

“I’m definitely trying new things, like new exercises just because I have the time to really get to see like most of my weaknesses," Whitehead said. "I get to focus on strengthening those. I’ve definitely taken advantage of the time. ... I feel like I’m the strongest I have been since I’ve been in the league.”

He believes the pandemic has helped him focus more inward.

“You’ve gotta be self-motivated at this time,” Whitehead said. “You’ve just gotta know ... the guy who is putting in work right now is somebody you’re playing against. You’ve gotta be ready."

Players say they miss the camaraderie of physically being with teammates. A few of the defensive backs get together for pick-up basketball games at one of their homes in Tampa. A group of skill players -- including quarterback Tom Brady -- have been conducting field workouts at a local high school.

Center Ryan Jensen didn’t have that luxury until recently. He was nearly 1,900 miles away in Colorado with his family, but the offensive linemen stay in touch virtually.

“I feel like if you go across any offensive line, they’ve got a group message somewhere,” Smith said, laughing. “The group message, we kind of look forward to that, throw little videos in there every once in a while, ya know, shoot the breeze with each other. For now, that’s all we can do. And group texts. And if anyone’s on PS4, holla at me."