LOS ANGELES — The first thing Donald Penn would like you to know is that he blames nobody but himself for his disappointing 2013 season. At age 30, and in his seventh year as an NFL starter, Penn gave up 12 sacks (only William Beatty of the Giants gave up more), six quarterback hits and 28 hurries in 1,064 snaps as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers‘ left tackle.
It was a season of dysfunction for the Bucs as the Greg Schiano era came to a merciful close. The Penn era in Tampa wouldn’t last much longer — he was released on Mar. 13. Penn was a far cry from the player who made the Pro Bowl in 2010 and signed a six-year deal that same season. And now, after signing a two-year deal with the Oakland Raiders for far less guaranteed money, Penn has to tune out the voices around the league — and perhaps inside his head — who may wonder if he’s done.
Many athletes will tell you that the end of a career is a little death — in most instances, there are decades of life left after that particular passing, and that’s what makes it so difficult. As an undrafted player out of Utah State, Penn has faced adversity before, but he’s never had the double whammy of new surroundings and a year of struggling to overcome. He’s spent the offseason reflecting on what went wrong, and working like crazy in Travelle Gaines’ Athletic Gaines gym in Los Angeles to try and make it right again.
This wasn’t how it was supposed to be. When left guard Carl Nicks succumbed to the outbreak of staph infections in the Bucs’ locker room, Penn was left with a roundtable of second and third options on his right side. And while he’ll refuse to deflect responsibility for that disappointing season, the downgrade from Nicks to his replacements was fairly severe.
“You try to pick up that timing and the knowing the person next to you within a couple of days, and it’s hard.”
– Raiders offensive tackle Donald Penn
“It was a tough one — it was up and down,” Penn said of his 2013 season. “I have a lot of respect for Coach Schiano. I understand his ways. Maybe a lot of guys didn’t pick up on it, but I feel that Schiano’s a good coach. But we had that, we had the [staph] infection thing going in, and I don’t know how many different guards playing next me last year. Different quarterbacks… we kind of went downhill towards the end of the season before last; we were on a playoff run and it hurt us. It was tough, and I’m glad it’s over and I can move forward. I’m looking forward to being an Oakland Raider.
“It was tough. I’m not trying to make any excuses, but if you ask me straight up… timing is a big part of being an offensive lineman. During camp, when Carl wasn’t there, they were trying to find someone who would fit in that spot. They had a couple of different guys going day in and day out. And in the season, I’d find out that somebody else was going to be playing, and then somebody else. You try to pick up that timing and the knowing the person next to you within a couple of days, and it’s hard.”
More a run-plower than a dancing bear, Penn was left doing too much at times — covering areas he wasn’t built to cover, and leaving spaces open that he was supposed to cover. It was an expensive lesson in the old coaching axiom: “Do your job.”
“I feel like I was worrying about a lot of stuff instead of worrying about me — taking care of my game and Donald Penn,” he recalled. “That could be why my play did go down a little last year, but at the end of the day, I have to worry about me, and doing everything I can to help our team succeed. Last year, I was worried about where this guy was, and what this guy was doing, and it trickled down on the way I played. But I can’t do that anymore. Because if I’m at my best, and I’m the best Donald Penn out there, we’re going to succeed.”
As he always does after the year is over, Penn came out to meet with Gaines and see what could be done.
“I’ve talked with Travelle about everything that went on during the season — things I want to work on next season and goals I want to reach,” Penn said. “He comes up with a plan to put me in place to achieve all those goals. That’s what I do in the beginning of the off-season — I come in here in February, and we start to work. I trust what he has for me, and I listen to him. A lot of guys — you play so many years in the league, you think you know it all. I feel that I do know what it takes, but I still listen to what Travelle tells me, and I follow his lead a lot.”
Perhaps the most difficult thing for left tackles — any blindside protector, really — is the slow reduction of foot speed when kick-sliding out to mirror defensive ends and outside linebackers. When you’re playing just short of 350 pounds and you’re trying to post up a guy who weighs 100 pounds less, who can run faster over 40 yards than you can run in 10… that’s where foot quickness comes in, and that’s what separates the best tackles from the blubbery guys who just maul their opponents. Penn has enjoyed that skill, and he knows it’s going to be tougher to maintain it from here on out.
“I play a lot of basketball in the off-season,” Penn said. “This year and last year is probably the least I’ve played because you hear about a lot of guys getting hurt that way. So I dialed that down a bit. But me and Travelle, we do a lot of footwork stuff in here — a lot of lateral drills. A lot of pass set stuff with the weight vest on. When I take that vest off, I feel quicker and lighter, so I make it harder on myself. We do a lot of running O-lineman stuff, with him holding a [tension] band. More resistance, so I feel quicker and lighter. We try to make it as hard as possible, so when it comes down to the real thing, it’s a lot easier.”
Gaines has trained enough players over the years to know when he’s got a guy who is facing a stronger demon than an off-year — that opponent known as time gets bigger and bigger in the rear-view. That’s when workout methods need to change.
“I think the biggest thing for Donald is that… one, he’s played at a very high level,” Gaines said. “Two, something that people fail to notice with Donald is that he’s never missed a game in his life. He’s never been injured, and he works hard. Every year, he comes in here and we get his weight down. That’s my job. But I think that getting released by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers is the best thing for Donald’s career. It gave him a chance to re-focus, re-evaluate, and say, ‘Listen — I’m going back to California, I’m going to play for the team I grew up loving, and I’m going to give them everything I’ve got.’ Not that he didn’t give that to the Buccaneers, but I think that a fresh start is great for him.
“They went through a lot of offensive coordinators and quarterbacks and different problems. Were some of the issues his fault? Yes. Were some of them not his fault? Yes. But at the end of the day, he took responsibility for everything. And he took it personally. So, when you have a guy who’s an ultimate team player — you’d be shocked at how many Bucs players come to California to visit Donald. He just got to the Raiders and had a camp, and there were a ton of Raiders players there. He’s a locker-room guy. So as he starts to get older, he wants to be the leader by example. Donald’s working out three times a day. You’ll see him this morning, you’ll see him a little later, and then you’ll see him at 8:00 p.m.
That’s all well and good — Penn does indeed work like a fiend when he’s in the gym, but what happens when there’s nothing but diminishing returns? Gaines believes that Penn isn’t there yet.
“He knows he’s getting older,” Gaines said of Penn. “His metabolism is slowing down, and he has to work harder to stay in shape. He wants to show the coaches that he can be that guy. And he wants to play at a high level for a few more years. He knows this is a critical year for him — if he doesn’t have a good year this year, it’s going to be tough. He’s putting that pressure on himself. You love working with a guy who holds himself accountable. Because there are so many people who blame everybody else. I’ve never heard Donald say anything bad about any of his coaches. He was a little disappointed on his departure from Tampa, but he never said anything bad anybody. He’s just that kind of guy, and he’s a pleasure to work with. He’s going to be fine.”
All Penn can do at this point is work hard, and believe in himself. Clichés for sure, but they’re the only league-abided remedies when facing the possibility that the end is far closer than the beginning.
“Fully focused, and even if the system isn’t right, I’m going to be that Donald Penn again. That Donald Penn last year… it was tough. It wasn’t the Donald Penn I’m used to. A lot of things went into it — you have to watch football [to know]. It ain’t just like… well, I love the system I’m in this year. I mean, I loved the system I was in last year, and the year before that, but I really love this system. I’m used to it, and I’m looking forward to it.
Watching Penn contort himself and pull against those bands and fight to beat the weight in those vests, it’s clear he’s taking the battle on full-go, and that 2013 was a definitive wake-up call.
“These offseason workouts, taking care of your body, getting stronger… you’ve got these young guys coming in trying to take your job. I don’t know what they’re putting in the water, but the way some of these guys are coming out now… they’re coming out like specimens. So, I’ve got to make sure I’m still a specimen.
“I keep doing what I can do, and I’m looking forward to it. I’m looking to turning an Oakland team I grew up cheering for around, and I’m looking forward to having a great season.”