TAMPA, Fla. -- When Tampa Bay Buccaneers players assembled for their annual training camp conditioning test, linebacker Cameron Lynch did a double-take when he looked up and saw his own position coach, 65-year-old Mark Duffner, lining up for sprints with the offensive linemen. He was the only member of the coaching staff to do that.
"I was like, 'I can't wait to play for this guy,'" Lynch said of the Bucs' defensive coordinator who has taken over for the fired Mike Smith. "He's a special guy. We see that. I think it's an opportunity to show the world that he's special. I’m excited for him."
Linebacker Kendell Beckwith joked, "When I get [to be] his age, I just pray I have that same energy, because he comes with it every day and there's nothing fake or flawed about it. It's just him. It's just who he is. He's a great man. ... [He] brings a lot of passion to the game."
The Bucs will need that passion and energy as they try to overhaul a nightmarish defense that through the first five games, averaged 439.8 yards given up per game -- 31st in the league and their worst production through the first five games since at least 2001.
"My philosophy is to be upbeat and positive. I don't see what you gain from not being [that way]," said Duffner, a disciple of Woody Hayes and Dick LeBeau. "People choose to do that. We all have a choice. Mine is -- 'Shoot, let's go after [it] with gusto, whatever it is we're doing.' I think you come away from it better as a result."
Duffner yells but doesn't berate. He's constantly preaching "attack!" to his players. He wants them downhill and aggressive, to be smart and physical.
"Defense has no room for being soft," Duffner said.
If a ball is on the ground, it must be scooped up. He's also very particular about the way they are to defend routes.
"Some people call it 'over-coaching' but he really instills it in us and it really helps out our room a lot," Beckwith said.
'Focus on the positive'
Duffner was handed the keys to the defense and had to formulate a game plan in a span of 48 hours before players returned for Wednesday's practice. Installing a completely different scheme in-season would be out-of-the-question.
But there are still things that can be tinkered with, such as when and how to dial up blitzes versus deploying more help in coverage, when to line up with a single-high safety versus two deep, and when to infuse twists and stunts versus rushing the passer straight-on with the defensive line.
"People go about things differently. It's the same meat and potatoes, but he's going to go about it a different way. I'm excited to see how he's gonna do it," Lynch said.
Pro Football Hall of Fame coach Dick LeBeau, who went through a similar situation with Duffner in Cincinnati when Bruce Coslet resigned, says Duffner can he can still get the defense on the right track.
"It'll be a challenge," LeBeau said. "I'm sure the main thing he'll try to do is just putting his thumbprint on getting the guys ready to play. It's early. They've been close in a lot of their games and they have a good chance to still have a very successful season. So, I think you’ve got to focus on the positive, which I know Mark will do that."
LeBeau says he has respect for Duffner's ability.
"Coach Duffner is a very competent, astute coach. He's spent his lifetime in football. I worked with him for several years. I'm sure he's been burning the midnight oil as it is, but he will definitely put in the time to do what he can do to improve the situation," LeBeau said.
This season, the Bucs rank last in a number of defensive statistical categories: points per game (34.6), passing yards per game (356), red zone touchdown percentage (94 percent) and opponent quarterback rating (80) -- the highest since QBR was first tracked in 2006.
"I think a lot of changes can be made," defensive tackle Beau Allen said. "More so [with in-game] adjustments."
Against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 3, they surrendered 30 points in the first half but pitched a shutout in the second. They gave up three touchdowns and a field goal in the first half last Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons, but held them to 10 points in the second, largely because they were able to make the necessary plays on third down.
The Bucs showed they could make competent changes in those games, but they needed to happen quicker. Those changes might be facilitated by having Duffner on the field, as opposed to being in the coaches' booth like Smith. Duffner has done both in his career, but prefers to be where the action is.
Positional coach at heart
The desire to be hands-on is largely why Duffner has served as a positional coach most of his 22-year NFL career, which included stints with the Cincinnati Bengals (1997-02), Green Bay Packers (2003-05), Jacksonville Jaguars (2006-13) and Miami Dolphins (2014-15).
Prior to that, he was a successful college coach for 21 years -- including the head coach at Holy Cross and Maryland. His first gig was as a graduate assistant under Hayes when he was 22. Duffner can still remember the date of his interview: March, 17, 1975.
"I sent 100 résumés out to colleges. I got about 96 no's and I got four yeses," Duffner said. "I was very fortunate -- as lucky as I could be. I think the good Lord probably dipped into his well to help me on [that]."
His quarterback at Maryland, John Kaleo, who went on to 14 seasons in the Arena League before becoming a coach himself, believes Duffner could have landed a head-coaching or defensive coordinator job in the 1990s or early 2000s.
"But that's just [wasn't] his M.O." Kaleo said. "He's a guy that just really appreciates the individuals that hired him and never wanted to back-stab them. That's why he's just so sincere. If it was really his ambition to be a head coach and to be a D-coordinator at other places in the NFL, he certainly would have done that. It just wasn't his path.
"He's one of those guys I would still run through a wall for and not even ask questions. Even at 47 years old."
Kaleo and Duffner try to meet regularly for lunch. Charles Fisher, who played cornerback for Duffner with the Bengals and is now an NFL agent, tries to meet with Duffner when he can.
"He's an all-around great guy. You believed and trusted him," said Fisher, who suffered a devastating knee injury during his first NFL game. Duffner stood by him, although the injury would ultimately end his career. "He welcomed me back with open arms and an opportunity, which is all you can ask for."
Linebacker Jack Cichy felt that same level of compassion when he came into rookie camp recovering from a torn ACL he suffered in college.
"You just know that he cares about you. You can feel it in his coaching and when you're in the meeting room. He lets his care go and he lets it kind of flow through his coaching and I think that's huge in getting guys to buy in -- that 'come with me' attitude," Cichy said.
"If your players know that you care about them, I think they're going to respond in a positive way," Duffner said. "They know if it's genuine or not. I love what I'm doing. You get a chance to see people in a lot of different scenarios where you can assist them in terms of whether it's off the field or on the field in terms of interaction with them and really getting to know them. How lucky have I been? Geez. It's been unbelievable."