How Gerald McCoy turned season around

TAMPA, Fla. -- Ask Gerald McCoy about the turning point in his rookie season and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive tackle brings the answer as quickly as a bull rush.

“It was chapel service before the game in Atlanta,’’ McCoy said. “The guest speaker [former Cleveland Browns tight end Rickey Bolden] said, 'if you’re not seeing the mental or physical results that you want, then you need to change what you’re doing.' It hit me right in the face.’’

That was on Nov. 7 and the Bucs went out and lost a close game to the Falcons that day. There was no noticeable difference in McCoy’s play that day. But take a look at what the No. 3 overall pick in this year’s draft has done since then.

In a Nov. 14 win against Carolina, he had a career-best five tackles. He also was credited with two passes defensed and a forced fumble. In a shutout victory at San Francisco the next week, McCoy recorded two half-sacks. Last week against Baltimore, he had two sacks. He now has three for the season after being held without a sack through the first nine games.

“You know, it’s been coming all year,” Raheem Morris said. “We all want oatmeal and grits. You open it up and add water and you drink it, but our game is not played that way. Our game is played through attrition, it’s played through battles, it’s played through tough-testing, and he has certainly went through the fire. I’m glad [the media] sparked a little fire in him with the negative stories and negative criticisms. All that stuff drives him. It makes him hungry to come to work with an angry mentality and attitude ... and that’s what we want.”

That’s pretty good insight on how high the expectations were for McCoy and how a lot of fans simply expected him to come in and immediately dominate. But the fuel that comes from the early criticism doesn’t come close to what really turned the light on for McCoy. That, he says, truly came in the chapel service.

“I was out of whack in my life,’’ McCoy said. “I wasn't out drinking or carousing or anything like that. I just had the wrong mindset. We have not entitlement and I had kind of developed a sense of entitlement. We’re here to serve God and, although I’ve always believed in that, I wasn’t quite living my life that way.’’

McCoy now reads the Bible and prays every day. Those were things he did before, but on a more sporadic basis.

If you want the change in simpler terms, let’s turn to Kelli Masters, one of McCoy’s agents.

“I think you could say that Gerald just focused on taking care of the inner things and living his life the way he truly believes it should be led,’’ Masters said. “Once he started doing that, the results started coming on the outside and the football side.’’

That’s been obvious as McCoy suddenly has emerged as a force on a defensive line that doesn’t have anything close to a force. Tampa Bay’s entire defense has suddenly been a lot better and so has McCoy’s mood.

“It feels good simply because I’m helping the team more,’’ McCoy said. “I’m finally doing what they brought me here to do, which is to make plays at game-changing times.’’

Even in the early days of the season, McCoy wasn’t playing as badly as a lot of people thought.

“He was grading out well all year,’’ defensive line coach Todd Wash said. “He just wasn’t making the splash plays he wanted to make. The thing about Gerald is that he’s his own worst critic and he was getting on himself hard because he wasn’t making those splash plays.’’

The chapel service was the main thing, but a few other things helped.

“We haven’t changed all that much,’’ Wash said. “We are playing more aggressively and we are cutting him loose a bit more. But, more than anything, I think it’s just a matter of Gerald understanding things and understanding what’s expected of him. We had some discussions about how he was not where he wanted to be and what he wanted to be known for. It wasn’t any big mysterious thing that turned it. It was just a matter of him working on a few little details and he’s done that. Because of where he was drafted, everything is magnified. He just focused in on doing what’s expected and understanding things better. He addressed it and he’s become a better pro because of it.’’

But the side of McCoy that’s overly self-critical has not changed.

“Early on, Gerald would call and he’d just be beating himself up,’’ Masters said. “I tried to tell him to just relax and things would come with time. But Gerald doesn’t really listen to that because he puts so much pressure on himself. Even now that he’s producing with big plays, he’s still very hard on himself and wants more.’’

That’s not necessarily a bad thing.

“I think it’s one of Gerald’s great qualities,’’ Wash said. “Gerald is the kind of guy that’s never going to be satisfied. If he gets two sacks one week, he wants to go out and get three or four the next week. He wants perfection and that’s not a bad thing.’’

That critical nature and quest to be the best isn’t going to change.

“That’s who I am,’’ McCoy said. “I want to be the best and I’m always going to take that very seriously. I made some changes to put myself on a better path and I’m always going to be looking for ways to make myself better.’’