Newcomers put the focus back on victories

If team chemistry really matters, this Tampa Bay team might have what it takes.

Published January 29, 2006

As Tim Marcum dressed in a silent visitor's locker room after last season's 62-46 playoff loss at Georgia, the Storm coach took mental stock of his team's shortcomings.

It needed more size up front. A better run game inside the red zone. More plays out of the receiver/defensive back position.

And one more thing: a better locker room.

As Tampa Bay opens its 16th season today at Philadelphia, its dressing stalls aren't any bigger and the walls aren't any more colorful. But the camaraderie inside the room pulls it all together.

Marcum hasn't been this excited about a team in seven or eight years, owner Peter C. "Woody" Kern said.

"I like the group I've got," Marcum said. "They've just really conducted themselves in a professional way. I get there, everybody's there, there's nobody late. Everybody's got a very positive attitude, they're working their a---- off and they've got good leadership.

"I'm very pleased. I come out of the office, and if they're there, they start the practice without the coaches. So it just kind of shows everybody's pulling the rope in the same direction."

The rope showed signs of fraying last season, when receiver/defensive back T.T. Toliver got into an altercation with assistant coach Steve DeBerg after a loss at Los Angeles. Toliver was traded to Nashville a few days later, and Tampa Bay responded with wins in six of its final eight games to erase a 4-4 start.

While Southern Division champion Georgia lost offensive specialist Troy Bergeron to the NFL draft and many of Orlando's top players left via free agency, the Storm brought back 15 of the 20 players who dressed for its playoff game.

Among the returnees are quarterback Shane Stafford, who passed for more than 4,500 yards and 83 touchdowns last season; offensive specialist Freddie Solomon (66 catches, 849 yards, 16 touchdowns); receiver/linebacker Lawrence Samuels, a preseason All-Arena pick; lineman/fullback/linebacker Nyle Wiren, a 2004 All-Arena selection; and defensive specialist Jonathan Ordway (871/2 tackles, six interceptions).

"The biggest thing right now I'm noticing with this team is the camaraderie," Stafford said. "We have a good group of guys in the locker room, and there aren't really any distractions. Nobody's coming out to practice late. Nobody's in meetings just talking because they want to talk. Everybody's listening. When Coach says something, they're listening. That's how it's supposed to be, and that's a positive thing to see."

The newcomers not only have followed the veterans' lead, they have plugged holes in the lineup or added depth at key positions. Receiver/linebacker Bobby Sippio; linemen Buck Gurley, Greg Taplin and A.J. Ricker; receiver/defensive back Jeff Sanchez and kicker Bill Gramatica are among new arrivals expected to have the most immediate impact.

Sippio, arenafootball2's Ironman of the year in 2003, was drawn by the opportunity to compete for a championship after failing to make the postseason in two seasons in Dallas. At 6-feet-3, he joins 6-2 Lawrence Samuels, 6-2 Ronney Daniels and 6-5 Huey Whittaker (signed to the practice squad) in a taller receiving corps.

"It's just an opportunity for me to play for Coach Marcum and be able to play for a championship-caliber team," said Sippio, who caught 61 passes for 863 yards and 24 touchdowns with the Desperados last season. "I just felt like I could put my helping hand in and make it a little better."

Gurley, part of playoff teams with the Predators in 2004 and '05, jumped at the chance to play for the five-time ArenaBowl champion Storm.

"To me, it's all about winning," said Gurley, 6-4, 300 pounds. "It isn't about, "I beat this team,' or all the old rivalries. My thing is I like to win, so every team is a rival to me."

Gramatica, younger brother of former Bucs kicker Martin Gramatica and a former USF Bull, hopes to use the Arena league as a springboard back to the NFL, where he made 77 percent of his field goals and missed one extra point in four seasons with the Cardinals and Dolphins.

"I'm going to do the best I can and help the team win," he said. "My ultimate goal is to try to get back in the NFL, but I'm just going to take it one step at a time for this year and do the best that I can and see if we can win some games."

He should fit right in.