Well-traveled White seizes long-awaited opportunity
After stints in the AFL, NFL Europe and even as a pizza delivery man, DE Greg White has found his niche as a pass-rushing specialist in Tampa Bay, writes Len Pasquarelli.
Every one of his team-high eight sacks, White acknowledges, came off a maneuver originated by someone else.
"I watch all the great pass-rushers, every chance I get, because I basically want to see what I can steal from them," said White, laughing, during a recent telephone interview. "Hey, you take a little from this guy, something else from that guy, tweak the stuff some, and suddenly you've got a pretty good bag of tricks. But none of the stuff is my own, really. I'm just a copycat, you know?"
Maybe so. But there are a lot of players in the NFL, many of them with significantly higher profiles and fatter paychecks, who wouldn't mind copying the success of the modestly talented White.
An overnight sensation five years in the making, White ranks among the season's best stories, perhaps the player in the league who has come the closest in 2007 to literally maxing out his talents. On a team of overachievers -- most pundits picked the Bucs to finish no better than third in the NFC South -- White nonetheless stands out on the Tampa Bay roster.
He is a guy who definitely appreciates just how far he has come. But to truly appreciate White's accomplishments, one has to consider from where the much traveled defensive end has come. Although White always tries to take the most direct route to the quarterback, his road to an NFL roster spot certainly has been circuitous.
"Yeah, there are a lot of [travel] tags on the luggage," White conceded.
|A look at five other overachievers in 2007: Gary Brackett, MLB, Indianapolis: He is the only Indianapolis linebacker to start every game and the "glue" player on a defense that suffered injuries to several key players, including end Dwight Freeney. Undersized and underrated, Brackett is a superb Tampa 2 linebacker. He has 110 tackles, four interceptions and 11 passes defensed. Buffalo Bills: The Bills have 15 players, including five defensive starters, on injured reserve and statistically rank 30th in total defense and 31st in total offense. But because of a terrific job by coach Dick Jauron and his staff, the Bills remained in the playoff chase late into the season. Bobby Engram, WR, Seattle: Long one of the NFL's premier slot receivers, Engram was forced into the starting lineup by injuries and the 12th-year veteran responded with a string of clutch performances. Through 15 games, he has 90 catches and, at 34, he has posted the first 1,000-yard season of his career. Earnest Graham, RB, Tampa Bay: In his first three seasons, the former undrafted college free agent totaled only 52 carries for 215 yards and no touchdowns in 41 appearances. But when Cadillac Williams and Michael Pittman went down with injuries, Graham stepped up big and salvaged the Bucs' ground attack. He has 213 rushes for 898 yards and 10 touchdowns, and 49 receptions for 324 yards. Anthony Herrera, G, Minnesota: He began the season as a reserve, playing behind Artis Hicks, but was inserted into the starting lineup after the fourth game and the Minnesota running attack flourished. The Vikings, who are the NFL's top-rated running team, averaged 135 rushing yards the first four games and 174.7 yards in the 11 games since Herrera became a starter. --Len Pasquarelli|
White was a seventh-round choice out of the University of Minnesota by the then-expansion Houston Texans in their inaugural 2002 draft. Despite an incredible preseason-opening performance in which he registered four sacks and two forced fumbles, White was waived before the start of the season. He then spent time either in training camp or on the practice squads of Washington, New Orleans, Tennessee, Atlanta, Tampa Bay and Chicago, never appearing in a regular-season game.
In the spring of 2005, he was allocated by the Bears to the Cologne Centurions of the NFL Europe. And then, in 2006, having worked stints as a pizza delivery man, in a syrup factory, as a salesman at a Best Buy store, and with a water delivery company, he signed with the Orlando Predators of the Arena Football League.
"I was flat-out in debt, I had two kids I needed to support and it was a way to play football at some level, and to make some pretty decent money doing it," White said. "Unlike a lot of guys, I didn't see it as a way back to the NFL, no, sir. My biggest goal back then was just to win an Arena League championship and that was it. And then fate kind of [intervened], I guess you could say."
Fate in the form of Predators coach Jay Gruden, the younger brother of Bucs head coach John Gruden, and himself an offensive assistant on the Tampa Bay staff. Jay Gruden recommended that the Bucs sign White, who established an AFL record with 15 sacks in 2007, and the franchise finally agreed to a deal with the defensive end several weeks into training camp.
Signed almost as an afterthought, a camp-fodder type of player who, in the best of circumstances, might provide some depth, White first beat the odds by making the roster. And then, when he was added to the Bucs' third-down pass-rush package, he began regularly beating unsuspecting offensive tackles for sacks. As surprised as some of those tackles were by White's innate quickness and closing speed, no one was more surprised than him at how things worked out.
Said White, who at 28 qualifies as a late-bloomer: "I was just happy to make the team. When [defensive line coach] Larry Coyer came up to me the week of the opener and said, 'You're dressing,' I couldn't believe it. I was like, 'I'm what! For real?' After all these years of scuffling around, it meant a lot to me to just play in one NFL game, let alone a full season's worth."
Despite starting in only two of Tampa Bay's first 14 contests, and serving mostly as the No. 3 or No. 4 end while playing principally on third down, White has 46 tackles, two fumble recoveries and one pass defensed to go along with his eight sacks. And his seven forced fumbles, many of them on sack-and-strip plays when he burst into the backfield, are the second most in the league.
"He's matured a lot," Coyer said. "He's really focused now, and he appreciates the game and understands how hard you have to work at this to be good. Plus, he's hungry."
Hungry enough that White keeps sneaking in extra workouts, even on off days, to stay in shape. He has developed his own treadmill regimen -- 15 seconds on, 15 seconds off, then 15 seconds on again, through a grueling 20-23 minutes -- and completes it several times a week. "I'm cheating, man, but it's paying off," he said.
There have been several offensive players from the Arena Football League, most notably Arizona quarterback and two-time league most valuable player Kurt Warner, who have made the successful transition from the indoor game to the NFL. Few defensive players, though, have made the conversion with any degree of facility. Most of the handful who have played only briefly in the NFL, and they were defensive backs.
But just as the pace of the indoor game helped Warner develop a quick release and the knack for throwing to spots on the field, the compressed surface aided White, he feels, in improving often overlooked defensive line components such as hand placement and leverage. Those elements are keys to defensive line play in general, but are particularly critical to rushing the passer.
"It's a really small area you're working in," said White, "and if you don't get your hands on the [offensive lineman], you're out of the play before you have a chance to do anything. So you've got to develop those fundamental skills."
And in the case of White, you've got to keep developing pass-rush moves borrowed from other players. Which is fine with White, who doesn't fret so much over originality as he does production and is grateful to any of the NFL's premier pass-rushers from whom he has stolen a trick or two.
"Any little thing I can pick up, anything that I can use to make me better, is a plus," said the effervescent White, a refreshing young man who admits to having been humbled at times by the long road to a regular job in the league. "I think, when I first came [into the league], people didn't want to take the time to work with me and develop me. So I'm putting in the time they didn't. I've banged into a lot of closed doors, so I'm going to do whatever I takes, now that I've finally snuck through the door, to stick around."
Senior writer Len Pasquarelli covers the NFL for ESPN.com.
MORE NFL HEADLINES
- Seahawks rout Cards behind big-play offense
- Romo-led Cowboys smack Colts, claim berth
- Romo as MVP? Unquestionably, Cowboys say
- Patriots escape Jets to pick up 1st-round bye