TAMPA — Alex Smith spent the offseason leading up to the 2006 season thinking his rookie season was the way it worked in the NFL.
Then, in 2006, Smith experienced a new low as the Buccaneers went 4-12, their worst season in more than a decade.
"Last year, I realized how tough it was (to make the playoffs)," Smith said. "I took it for granted my rookie season."
He doesn't anymore, and Smith believes part of his job this week is to instill that thought into the minds of the 23 Buccaneers that will make their playoff debuts on Sunday against the New York Giants.
Problem is, Smith said, there isn't much he can tell them other than "you have to experience it."
"Everyone's faster and playing harder," Smith said. "(You just have to) get in there and get your feet wet. That's the only way."
Of those 23 Bucs, 11 are rookies or first-year players and many of them are playing key roles, especially on defense. Two years ago Smith was part of a youth movement on offense that saw three rookies play key roles the entire season — RB Carnell Williams and OG Dan Buenning were the others. Additionally, QB Chris Simms and OT Anthony Davis made his first postseason starts after years on the bench.
This postseason RDE Gaines Adams and FS Tanard Jackson, two drafted rookies, will make their postseason debuts. Same goes for first-year DE Greg White, second-year DT Jovan Haye, third-year MLB Barrett Ruud (as a starter) and sixth-year CB Phillip Buchanon.
Ruud was a rookie backup when the Bucs faced the Redskins two years ago. Today he's a full-time starter and the postseason berth has, in a sense, reinvigorated him.
"My rookie year I did (hit the wall), but this year I'm having fun," Ruud said. "It feels like the year is not even winding down to be honest with you."
At least Ruud won't face the shock he and Smith did in 2005 when the Bucs hosted the Redskins. The atmosphere, fourth-year pro and LSU grad Michael Clayton said, is like a Saturday afternoon game at Tiger Stadium.
"I still have that visual of all the flags (the fans waved)," Smith said. "It was surreal. It was a crazy atmosphere."
Bucs head coach Jon Gruden's focus on Monday wasn't on experience. It was on preparation.
"I think again the big thing is let's have a great week of practice, let's get to know the [New York] Giants and let's play our best football and that's what's going to keep us alive in this playoff tournament," Gruden said.
Many of the younger players say the veterans have talked to them about the postseason and said one of the keys is to keep things simple during the week.
"Stay away from distractions, stay focused," White said. "Just stay focused, really. That's about it. There's a lot of distractions being in the playoffs, being here in Tampa, but this is the most important thing going on right now."
There is no substitute for playoff experience in January, most players agreed. WR Ike Hilliard had plenty to draw on during his New York Giants days when he joined the Buccaneers in 2005. Like many veterans, he struggled to find a way to explain what playoff football meant in the context of preparing inexperienced players.
"You screw up one playoff down you can cost your team a lot of money and a chance to play for that big one (Super Bowl)," Hilliard said. "If you think there's pressure then (the regular season), you haven't seen pressure until you get to the playoffs."
And that pressure can be overwhelming. Smith admitted he felt as much during his playoff debut in 2005. Talking about the pressure of the postseason is one thing. Doing it to the point of overwhelming a young player, and thereby damaging his psyche, is another.
Some veterans are conscious of that, but they have to find a way to get their point across.
January is different than anything players like Adams and Jackson have experienced.
"The stakes are much higher now," Bucs C John Wade said. "It's not OK to do something wrong now. We have to be clean across the board."
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Matthew Postins covers the Buccaneers for Bucsblitz.com and the Charlotte (Fla.) Sun-Herald. He is a member of the Pro Football Writers Association, and his coverage of the Buccaneers has won numerous state and national awards.