Invigorated Jason Pierre-Paul warms to Bucs' leadership role

Coach Dirk Koetter on Jason Pierre-Paul: "I guess I wasn't expecting JPP to be the practice player and the leader that he's been so far." Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

TAMPA, Fla. -- It took nine years in the NFL and a devastating fireworks accident that nearly ended his career for Jason Pierre-Paul to get up and bare his soul in front of his teammates. Not the ones in New York, who, three years ago, waited helplessly to learn the fate of their star defensive end. But his new ones with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

"Never take anything for granted," he told them, recounting the day he lost his right index finger and severely damaged others, jeopardizing not only his career, but his life. "You never know if this could be your last play."

It was during joint practices with the Tennessee Titans that coach Dirk Koetter asked Pierre-Paul to talk to the team about discipline. What Koetter got was so much more.

"I just told them my story and what it took for me to get back, without quitting, with all the doubts in the world -- that at the end of the day, it's all in here," Pierre-Paul said, pointing to his heart.

Koetter frequently asks different players to address the team. But this speech in particular resonated with teammates, many of whom didn't know much about the 2010 first-round draft pick the Bucs traded for during the offseason.

"He told the whole story and it was like, 'Wow,'" cornerback Vernon Hargreaves said. "New team, doesn't really know the guys. It doesn't really matter to him though. It's his team now, we're his brothers now and we felt that -- [and] we want to play for him. His passion isn't fake. Pro players, we have a good gauge of real and fake -- and he's all real."

Said defensive end Vinny Curry: "To see someone who loves the game as much as you, and to see the game almost taken away from [him], it makes you want to come back with that much fire and desire."

Added defensive tackle Beau Allen: "I think it was definitely one of the more memorable [speeches]. Anytime [a] teammate gets out of their comfort zone and kind of opens themselves up to you as a team, I think that's a really cool thing. … I think the thing I really appreciated most about what he was saying is that you can tell how much he really cares about the game and how much he cares about doing things the right way."

He said he never stood up in front of teammates and gave a speech like that in New York -- not even to tell them about his accident. He's not a vocal leader.

"I'm not really a talker. I just lead on the field," Pierre-Paul said.

Even Koetter wasn't sure about that part when Pierre-Paul was noticeably absent from all of organized team activities.

"When he didn't come to the offseason program, other than the mandatory part -- he and I were in touch by phone -- [and] all he told me was, 'I'll be ready. When the time comes, I'll be ready and you'll like it,'" Koetter said. "Deep down, I was sort of thinking 'Eh, maybe not.' But he was right.

"I guess I wasn't expecting JPP to be the practice player and the leader that he's been so far. I'm really fired up about it. Sometimes a guy that's got his pedigree comes in and is looking for ways out of drills, and that's not him at all."

What the Bucs have found is a guy with 58 sacks, a guy who can help establish a foundation for a defense that finished with just 22 sacks last season and gave up the most yardage of any team in the league, a player who's making those around him better.

"His mentality and the way he attacks guys in practice -- he practices really hard, man, and that's one thing I really admire about him," Allen said. "Just like his focus, he wants to win every rep in practice, and he does a really good job of setting an example of how you should play during practice."

During pass-rush drills, he won't just go against the first-team offensive linemen, but third-stringers, too. He doesn't take reps off. In between turns, he'll grab Noah Spence for some additional work on the side. He stays late to get more technique work in with fellow veteran Curry, and the two bounce ideas off each other.

He also has been giving advice to Will Gholston and Will Clarke about how they can use their body length to their advantage. And when the Special Olympics came to the facility recently, he was enthusiastic, leading foot-races and obstacle courses and celebrating with the participants.

"He leads quietly behind the scenes," defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said. "Guys love him. All the experience he has -- [he's] a great leader. And sometimes guys have experience but don't lead well, but he's a great leader -- pulling guys aside, holding private meetings with players, doing extra out at practice. A lot of it is not just what he's doing with them, it's him playing well as well."

In meeting rooms, he's the one frequently asking a lot of questions.

"I've never been that guy," Pierre-Paul said. "I'll ask questions now. … In order for me to get better, I've gotta ask questions. Yeah, I'm a nine-year vet, but sometimes -- I ain't gonna know everything. Nobody knows everything. So even if it's [an] embarrassing question: 'Should I line up here?' or 'Hey, I don't understand that.'"

Often, when a player gets to a certain point in his career, there's a shift in his approach. He sees his own athletic mortality, which in Pierre-Paul's case came early because of the accident. Usually with that comes a greater desire to pass along what he knows to the guys around him. And in Pierre-Paul's case, a change in scenery has helped.

"This isn't the old Bucs of 2017. This is the new Bucs of 2018, and we plan on doing something special," Pierre-Paul said. "We're trying to establish something great here."

Pierre-Paul is no longer the wunderkind from the University of South Florida, either. He's no longer trying to prove that, after just one year of Division I football, he has what it takes to be an NFL player. He doesn't have Osi Umenyiora or Justin Tuck to lean on. He's the guy younger players are now leaning on, the one pulling aside Spence and telling him, "Hey, I was once in your shoes."

He's not fighting for a new contract either. He wants another Super Bowl just as badly as he wanted the first one, but for different reasons.

"So my son can see it," Pierre-Paul said of Josiah, 3, who lives with his mother in West Palm Beach, Florida. "It's more for my son, my family and my teammates. I can't do this without my teammates. If we're all not functioning, if we're not all on one accord, it's not gonna work."

He acknowledges that getting their pass-rushers on the same page will take some time. They've produced six sacks in three preseason games this season, 30th in the league. The unit has been plagued by injuries, particularly at defensive tackle, with both Vita Vea and Mitch Unrein missing a large portion of camp and the preseason.

There are a lot of new pieces in place, too, and chemistry doesn't happen overnight. But a big step in that building process is establishing leadership.

"The thing about it is, we're able to see who he is," McCoy said. "And when you know who a person is and what they've been through, you know what they're playing for. It makes you say, 'I know what this guy next to me is playing for. If I'm not doing my job, I'm letting him down.’”

As for the speeches, teammates hope that first one won't be his last.

"I really want him to talk it before every game," Hargreaves said. "Because it's true and it's real, and guys respond to that."