Tampa Bay Buccaneers

A Fine Outlook

Monday Notes: Heading into a well-timed bye week, the Bucs still feel very good about their 2008 prospects…Plus, another look at the running back situation and Head Coach Jon Gruden makes good on a friendly wager

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Yes, that Phillies hat was on Head Coach Jon Gruden's head, but only briefly and only to make good on a friendly wager

In years past, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have used their bye week to get a few "bonus" practices in before taking a nice, long weekend to relax.

There are many ways an NFL team can approach its bye, but the Buccaneers had done fairly well with their formula. In the first six seasons under Head Coach Jon Gruden, the Bucs had won five of six games before their bye weeks and three of six after.

This year's bye week will be a little different for Buccaneer players, however, and they certainly aren't complaining. After holding a team meeting on Monday and a film review session on Tuesday morning, the Bucs' staff will wave good bye to the players and say, "See you next week."

The altered schedule is obviously a nod to the team's long list of troublesome injuries. In recent weeks, the Bucs have had a difficult time fielding a full, regular practice even when they were preparing for a game on Sunday. The bye week always offers a team the dual benefits of extra work and extra recovery time, but this year the Bucs see more value in the latter.

"It's going to help us," said Gruden on Monday morning, a day after his team launched dramatically into the bye week with the biggest comeback win in franchise history. "Obviously our running back situation in particular is very concerning to us. Both fullbacks, both halfbacks. We've got a number of guys that are nicked up and guys that we need back. Hopefully this week will help us."

What is particularly promising in Gruden's point of view is not only that the Bucs may be getting back a handful of injured players, but that they continued to succeed in the first half of the season without many of those key contributors. That bodes well for the team in the season's second half if the health situation improves significantly and some depth is restored to the roster.

"I like this team," said Gruden. "We've had nine pretty solid outings. We've won six, lost three. You go to the stadium yesterday and there is no Warrick Dunn, there's no Arron Sears, there's no Jermaine Phillips, we lose Earnest Graham. What can you say? People have stepped up when they've been asked to step up, whether it be Brian Griese or [Jeff] Garcia, Clifton Smith. I like this team. They work hard, they believe in one another and they're pretty good."

The Bucs were very nearly 5-4 heading into their week of relaxation and contemplation, and a two-game losing streak would have made that idle team much less pleasant. Instead, the team's amazing rally to a 30-27 overtime win in Kansas City provided an emotional boost and helped validate what the team had accomplished the previous eight weeks.

"I think it helps you [to win in that fashion]," said Gruden. "I think success is a great motivator and confidence-builder. But this team has done it all year. We came from behind in the fourth quarter against Green Bay; we came from behind in the fourth quarter at Chicago. This is a team that plays for 60 minutes. We've fallen short a couple times, but in our three losses we were knocking on the door in those games, too. So it's a solid football team that plays hard. I'm really proud of the guys and hopefully we can get some players well that need to get well."

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Back to Health?

No group of players on the Bucs' depth chart will enjoy the bye week more than the running backs, who apparently have an injury bug loose in their meeting room.

Injuries suffered by fullback B.J. Askew (hamstring, out since Week Three), fullback Byron Storer (knee, out for the season), Cadillac Williams (knee, out since Week Four of 2007) and Warrick Dunn (back, one carry in the last 10 quarters) have put an enormous burden on the versatile Earnest Graham…and now even Graham is aching.

Graham, who has played extensively at both tailback and fullback since the losses of Askew and Storer, sustained a painful knee contusion during the first half of Sunday's game at Kansas City and at one point had to be taken into the locker room for further examination. He did return to the game and eventually contributed 91 rushing/receiving yards and his first career touchdown pass, but the knee was still in issue on Monday.

Gruden called Graham's status "uncertain" on Monday; with no game until November 16, there will be no need for an official update until the middle of next week. Already limited in their run-formation options by the other injuries, the Bucs would be in a bind without Graham. Fortunately, he has proven himself to be an extremely tough player.

"He went to the locker room, trainers looked at him and courageously he came out and played in the second half," said Gruden. "It's a tough time a year, midseason, for a running back in the NFL. These guys are all sore and beat up.

"Have we asked a lot of Earnest, maybe too much at times? Yes, yes we have, but that's what you do with your best players. When you are in the thick of a tight tournament like we are, we're going to keep trying to pound the ball inside to Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar] and try to get some points in the paint, as I say. We got to lean on our guy and he was our only healthy versatile back going in to the game, so that was our plan yesterday."

Other options could be emerging, thanks to returning health and good offseason scouting, as the second half begins. One of those is rookie running back Clifton Smith, an undrafted free agent out of Fresno State who made the roster a few weeks ago primarily to return punts and kickoffs. While has obviously filled those jobs magnificently, Smith has also made several impactful plays on offense. Gruden conceded that Smith's splash plays may be earning some more looks from scrimmage.

"In those final couple drives [at Kansas City] you saw a lot of Clifton Smith, as a runner and a receiver, picking up the blitz, knowing what to do," said Gruden. "It's a real credit to him, and certainly Rich Bisaccia and Tim Berbenich have done a great job with him. You look at him, he's not a tall guy but he's a very thick, quick, shifty, elusive back. And he's a natural – he understands the game and he shows great poise as a player. That's just a credit to him."

And then there's Williams, who hasn't played since suffering a very serious knee injury at Carolina last September 30. His practice window at the tail end of his stint on the PUP list is about over, which means the Bucs will soon have to decide if he will be added to the 53-man roster. Gruden met with the determined back on Monday morning to go over his progress.

"He has a great look in his eye," said Gruden. "He is very confident, I think, in his knee and what he has put into this. We will see what Earnest and Warrick's health status is and we will make that decision next week but there is a possibility that he can help us and that would be really exciting, I know that."

**

Not Exactly a Phanatic

It fit snugly, the brim artfully curved and pulled down low over his forehead. But it wasn't exactly comfortable.

The hat that Gruden pulled out from under the podium at the end of Monday's press conference and slipped onto his head might have been the right size, or it might not have. We'll never know, because he vows it will never go on his head again.

The only reason that the Buccaneers' head coach – a big fan of the American League Champion Tampa Bay Rays – was momentarily donning a World Series Champion Philadelphia Phillies hat on Friday was to make good on a bet.

Before the 2008 World Series between Philadelphia and Tampa Bay began, Gruden entered into a team-pride wager with a friend from the City of Brotherly Love, sports radio personality Howard Eskin of WIP-AM. Had Tampa Bay won the series, Eskin would have been required to walk through the streets of Philadelphia wearing a Rays jersey.

Unfortunately, the other half of the wager required Gruden to don a Phillies hat at his next Monday press conference if Philadelphia came out on top. Last Wednesday, the Phillies won a rain-delayed Game Five at Citizens Bank Park, taking the series 4-1 and putting Gruden in the uncomfortable situation of upholding his end of the deal.

And so, after the last question was asked on Monday but before he left the stage in the Buccaneers' studio at team headquarters, Gruden looked into the assembled cameras, explained the wager and – very briefly – put on the Phillies hat.

Reiterating his Rays allegiance one more time, Gruden pulled the hat on tight and gave a shout out to Eskin and his crew.

"To all my friends at WIP in Philadelphia, your loyal coverage when I was there, I really appreciate you," said Gruden. "And that will be the end of this hat."

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