TAMPA — Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive tackle Roy Miller and Coach Raheem Morris admitted they were taken aback when they arrived at the team’s training room just after 7 a.m. Tuesday, the players’ off day.
As many Buccaneers rested at home, or slept in, Albert Haynesworth, Tampa’s newest addition and most controversial player, lay sprawled out on a massage table awaiting treatment on a day he was not required to report.
“It just goes against everything I’ve heard,” Miller said. “He was here trying to get better.”
Haynesworth has left a trail of surprises in his wake since arriving eight days ago. The Buccaneers, who play Sunday at Green Bay, claimed him off waivers after the New England Patriots discarded him Nov. 9, bringing a sudden end to the dismal eight-game experiment that followed a pair of tumultuous seasons with the Washington Redskins.
Haynesworth contributed little in New England, tallying six tackles and no sacks. Yet in his first game for Tampa, he started, played 47 snaps, made five tackles and blocked an extra point in a 37-9 loss to the Houston Texans.
“It’s been shocking,” Morris said. “I guess you can say shocking, because of the stuff we had heard.”
Whether Haynesworth, 30, can turn an excellent first week into a career renaissance remains to be seen. Plenty of skeptics will surely await the crash. Former Buccaneers defensive tackle Warren Sapp, an NFL Network analyst, last week called Haynesworth an “unmotivated guy” and “a turd.” Last year, Redskins linebacker London Fletcher described him as “selfish” and unreliable.
Patriots Coach Bill Belichick managed more diplomacy, saying that Haynesworth “really tried” to do what was asked of him, but that the experiment failed.
His new teammates shrug at the barrage of negative assessments. They say they’ve detected no major flaws — so far. They say he has been diligent about getting to meetings, and has been piping up with advice for the youngsters who populate the Buccaneers’ roster.
“He goes about his business as a professional,” Bucs linebacker Geno Hayes said. “He’s been busting his behind in the film room trying to understand our defensive scheme. . . . He’s doing all of the things that are the opposite of what people said about him.”
The Buccaneers have promised nothing, saying they are evaluating Haynesworth week to week. But Haynesworth insists he’s finally found a system that suits him and to which he has devoted himself 100 percent.
“It was great to play that many plays” on Sunday, Haynesworth said. “The coaches have confidence in me. They let me play out there, do what I do. I really appreciate that.”
On Wednesday, the 6-6, 350-pound Haynesworth stood in front of his locker stall in a large, gray Tampa Bay Buccaneers T-shirt and black basketball shorts, towering over reporters and pleasantly fielding questions. He said Morris and other coaches have told him to worry about nothing but wreaking havoc in the backfield. They’ve also set him aside for some veteran pampering, slotting him for regular days off from practice so he’s not worn down on Sundays.
“I want to show myself — even though I know I’m the same player — I want to show myself that I can play at a high level, dominate at defensive tackle and be a guy teams worry about when they scheme their offensive game plan,” he said.
The teams that worried about Haynesworth over the last few years were mostly the two on which he played. Haynesworth’s reputation, which soared during his seven years with the Tennessee Titans, plunged almost as soon as he signed a seven-year, $100 million deal with the Redskins in 2009, becoming one of the biggest free agent flops in team history. He failed conditioning tests. He refused to play nose tackle in a 3-4 defensive scheme. He was suspended for “conduct detrimental to the team” in late 2010.
In July, the Patriots gave the Redskins a fifth-round draft choice in 2013 for Haynesworth, who said he enjoyed Foxborough despite the lack of playing time.
“I liked the team,” he said. “I liked Coach Belichick. I liked the owner, an unbelievably kind man; I spent a lot of time with Mr. Kraft. I learned a lot from him in a short period of time.”
His tenure came to an end after he failed to stop Brandon Jacobs’s 10-yard run in New England’s 24-20 loss to the New York Giants on Nov. 6, getting driven back on a block. He didn’t re-enter the game after that play late in the third quarter, and was waived days later. As soon as the Buccaneers learned Haynesworth was available, Morris said, they began pondering a move. They didn’t want him as much as need him; starting defensive tackle Gerald McCoyhad been lost for the season with a torn biceps. Frank Okam, another tackle, was hurt.
“I believe every man deserves a chance to come in and prove himself and be his best self,” Morris said.
Morris noted that the Bucs’ opening fit Haynesworth perfectly. Haynesworth would line up in the gap between the guard and tackle with essentially one responsibility: getting through the hole in front of him. Haynesworth had been saddled with more detailed responsibilities since he left the Titans.
“People who don’t understand the real details of football will say whatever,” Haynesworth said. “I don’t worry about it. I know the situation I’ve been in. . . . You can’t just go from one scheme to another and still have the same production.”
In New England, he added: “I had to stay on the line and read the block. Washington was a completely different thing. You had to react to what the offensive line did. In the first year, there was a lot of stuff to listen to, a bunch of calls at the line, so I was really thinking a lot out there. Here, it’s really just one call and go.”
Haynesworth said he wanted to play at Tampa Bay all along, accepting the Redskins’ mega-offer in 2009 instead of signing with the Buccaneers mainly because he feared the distractions associated with a franchise so close to the sun and surf.
Tampa Bay “was my first choice even though I signed with Washington,” said Haynesworth, who owns a home in Miami. “Here, it was better, but I was a little afraid of things. I like the sun, the water, I have a big boat, things like that. . . . There are a lot of distractions here, and I was scared of that. I should have just trusted myself.”
Defensive line coach Keith Millard said the Bucs decided to let Haynesworth take advantage of the lighter practice schedule the team historically has offered to veterans, “so he can get to Sunday” and blast off.
“I told him, ‘Hey, you’re going to have fun here,’ ” Millard said. “We’re a one-gap penetrating defense, just like you had in Tennessee. You’re going to love it.”
So far, the love has flowed both ways. Time will tell whether it’s more than infatuation.
“He makes plays and he’s a massive human being playing in front of you,” said the team’s leading tackler, Mason Foster. “As a linebacker, it doesn’t get any better than that.”