TAMPA — One thing you can say about Buccaneers quarterback Josh McCown is he is a man who has always kept his word — even when keeping his word has worked largely to the detriment of his career.
That was certainly the case back in 2010, when McCown's career had stalled and he'd given his word to the Hartford Colonials of the now-defunct United Football League that once training camp began, he'd stay with them for the entire year.
The promise backfired almost immediately when then-Chicago Bears coach Lovie Smith called McCown in late July and asked for his services the day before the Colonials were scheduled to open training camp.
“The Colonials were going to let me go, but there was something in me that wasn't restful, something that was unsteady,” McCown said Thursday. “I just thought, 'You know, this is not right. I've given these people my word.'
“I mean, my four kids — what would I be teaching them if I said, 'Hey, man, as long as something better comes along, you can break your word?' It was just a conviction of mine.”
Such convictions are among the reasons the Bucs signed the 34-year-old career backup to a two-year, $10 million contract this week and named him their starting quarterback for the 2014 season.
Though he obviously believes in his ability to replicate the stunning run he had as an emergency starter for the Bears last year, Smith — now in his first season as Bucs coach — said character factored heavily into the decision to make McCown a Buccaneer.
“We wound up going to the NFC championship game (in 2010), so that's the kind of opportunity he turned down,” Smith said. “But that's the character of the man. I mean, in the end, I think we all end up where we're supposed to be anyway.”
Anthony Collins certainly feels that way. Much like McCown, the six-year veteran swing tackle has bided his time, waiting patiently for an opportunity to become an NFL starter. That chance finally came on Thursday.
After signing Collins to a five-year contract, the Bucs released former starting left tackle Donald Penn and named the 6-foot-5, 315-pound Collins as Penn's successor.
At their news conference Thursday, it was hard to tell who was more grateful, McCown or Collins. But given their respective career paths the nod might have to go to McCown. That Hartford experience, after all, was no picnic.
“Every inch of the way in Hartford, I was like, 'What was I thinking?' ” McCown said. “I mean, there was one day when the team bus broke down going to practice. I was like, 'Oh my gosh.' And then you go to the equipment room and say, 'Hey, I need a pair of shorts,' and they say, 'There's a Dick's Sporting Goods down the road.' I was like, 'This is the UFL, not the NFL.' So it was a different experience.”
Starting will be a slightly different experience, too.
In 12 NFL seasons, McCown has made only 38 starts. Only twice — in 2004 with Arizona and in 2007 with Oakland — has he opened a season as his team's starter.
But the five starts he made with the Bears last year and the success he had in producing a 109.0 passer rating while throwing 13 touchdown passes and one interception has him believing he can succeed as the starter here.
“The good thing is, I've gone through an offseason as the starter before,” McCown said. “So I understand all those things, and now it's a matter of coupling those past experiences with what I've learned over the last 12 months.”
McCown's experiences are unique for a quarterback poised to start in the NFL. In addition to his Hartford saga, there were two years spent working as an assistant coach at Marvin Ridge High School in Waxhaw, N.C.
That was in 2011 and 2012, but McCown is just as grateful for that experience as he is for the experience he had in Hartford. Without it, he said, he wouldn't have excelled last year and thus probably wouldn't have gotten the chance to sign with the Bucs this year.
“Coaching high school ball those two years, I started learning the game differently because, as a coach, you stop at the stripe and you have to let the players do it. So the way you teach and learn the game is different,” he said. “So when the opportunity came to get back into pro ball, I was able to study and work and do the things I learned from coaching and it allowed me to go out and play good ball. So that experience had a huge impact on me.”
All that time on the sideline has had an impact on McCown, too. Though he will turn 35 before the start of the new season, he said he feels a lot younger than that.
“Other starting quarterbacks that are in their 30s, they've played a lot more games and taken a lot more hits,” McCown said. “So my body feels great and I feel like I can continue to do the things I've always done.
“And so what excites me is, to be able to do the things I did athletically before in my career but now have the mental capacity and the experience to know how to put those things together, I feel like I can definitely put my best foot forward here.”