An injured shoulder kept DT Warren Sapp out of practice Wednesday but the team hopes he can return on Thursday
The window has apparently closed on a golden opportunity for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
No, not that window. Tampa Bay's postseason hopes are very much alive and, in fact, under the Bucs' own control.
The window the Bucs missed was an opportunity to get all 58 of its players on the practice field at the same time (including the practice squad) for the first time all season. Last week, the team got up to 57 participants by Thursday, waiting only on the possible return of safety Eric Vance from a knee injury. Vance never did make it back, though, and was sidelined by the same injury as a new week of practice began on Wednesday.
Of course, it would have been little more than a novelty note, but the Bucs' relative health was indeed a significant issue midway through December. One week later, the team is banged up again, as just about every team in the league is at this point in the season.
Wednesday, five players were held out of the two-hour, afternoon workout, including Vance and two defensive starters, cornerback Ronde Barber (hamstring) and defensive tackle Warren Sapp (shoulder). Two wide receivers were also shelved, as Jacquez Green (hip) and Frank Murphy (ankle) were unable to practice.
Murphy and Vance, however, are the only players listed as 'questionable' or worse on the Bucs' official injury report, released Wednesday. Head Coach Tony Dungy indicated that Murphy is almost certain to miss Sunday's game against New Orleans, while Vance has an outside shot to play after missing the Chicago contest.
The news is better on starters Barber, Sapp and Green.
"Those guys hopefully can get some practice in tomorrow or Friday," said Dungy. "I think they'll all play in the game, but we just wanted to rest them and give them that extra day."
Barber has actually been playing with a strained left hamstring for almost a month, and the injury knocked him out of the game in Chicago briefly after it was aggravated in the first quarter. He did manage to play the rest of the game despite the sore leg, leading the team with nine tackles and two passes defensed.
"He's playing," said Dungy of Barber. "He's got a lot of soreness in there. He's able to play because he's got a high pain threshold. He's played pretty well with it for about three weeks now. Some are a little more severe and some you can't go, but he's been able to make it through."
Wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson did practice, despite being on the injury report with a right ankle sprain. Johnson, whose 100 catches have come at the expense of a string of hard tackles, has fought through a variety of injuries this season to play, and produce, in every game. Despite the tweaked ankle, he was actually feeling quite spry on Wednesday before the workout.
"I'm fine," he said. "I'm healthy, I'm fine, I'm ready to go to practice today and have fun. My beating's over. Now, I'm healthy. Now, I can just play."
Despite the slightly thinned-out ranks, the Bucs put on their best practice in a couple of weeks, leaving Dungy with a smile on his face. It didn't hurt that the unseasonably oppressive weather of the last month finally lifted to give the team a 70-degree, breezy afternoon as a practice backdrop.
"(It was) actually, pretty good," he said. "We had a good day's work, great weather for it. I thought our concentration was good, our effort and intensity, so it was a good day.
"I think we'll have better practices as we go and hopefully it builds to Sunday. Obviously, it's a big game with a lot at stake, and that's the way it should be this time of year. You're practicing for important games and today we practiced like it."
The Saints may discover what Tampa Bay learned three weeks ago – that it's a difficult task to go on the road the week after playing a Monday Night Football game. After defeating the Rams in St. Louis in prime time on November 26, the Bucs traveled to Cincinnati the next Sunday and struggled to pull out a 16-13, overtime win.
The Saints, coincidentally, are coming off a Monday nighter against the Rams, though they played at home and were unable to defeat Warner, Faulk and company. Even if the short week does not prove to be a disadvantage, the Bucs at least got a chance to see their upcoming opponent in live action.
"I watch every Monday night game and I think it's great if you can see actually what's going on," said Bucs quarterback Brad Johnson.
And what did he take away from that bit of 'television scouting?'
"You can see they are a very intense group, they do apply a lot of pressure all over the field," he said. "They play a lot of man coverage with our wide receivers, so our receivers are going to have to win some one-on-one matchups. We have to have some form of running game in this game, but there are going to be a lot of different matchups and we are going to have to try and win those matchups."
Dungy, who doesn't necessarily stay up for the duration of every Monday night affair, watched this one in its entirety and was mostly interested in the Rams' defensive efforts against the Saints. St. Louis held the Saints' ninth-ranked rushing attack to just 68 yards, but neither team ran much as the game turned into a shooting match. The Rams' defense, coordinated by former Bucs coach Lovie Smith, also picked off QB Aaron Brooks twice.
"It was kind of funny to watch to see virtually our defense out there and see how they were attacking them," said Dungy. "I thought Lovie's guys did a good job."
And did the Bucs' coaching staff use that as a little extra video instruction?
"We took some notes, yes," said Dungy with a smile.
During the Wednesday media session, safety John Lynch admitted that he had a slightly different vision in August of how the Bucs' 2001 season would unfold. Tampa Bay expected to be competing for a division title at this point in the season, not the final NFC playoff spot.
"Obviously, at the beginning of the year, I'm thinking 15-1 or 14-2," said Lynch. "It was just a matter of which one it was going to be. I think those expectations weren't out of kilter with where I really thought we were, so I think to be here…part of it is disappointing. The other part is, you've got to look forward to it and be excited that we're still in the hunt. With everything that's gone wrong this year, we still have an opportunity to reach our ultimate goal."
Perhaps that's why Lynch seemed to be in jovial mood on Wednesday, though his Tuesday Christmas Party for needy children probably had something to do with it, too. Lynch appears to be relishing the do-or-die situation into which the Bucs have forced themselves.
"Here we are with three games left, and I think the schedule-makers are happy that they've pitted a game between two teams that really need it with three games left," he said. "I think it's going to be a playoff atmosphere and we're looking forward to it. It's really easy to get caught up (in the thought) that this season's been a downer and all, but the reality is that we're still in this thing. We can go a long way and still have an opportunity for our ultimate goal by winning this week."