WR Ike Hilliard started at flanker in 2007 and is likely to be involved in the offense no matter who is in on the first snap
It's likely that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will elect to start Joey Galloway at one of their two wide receiver spots in the season opener Sunday in New Orleans. However, the team still hasn't chosen Galloway's running mate.
Four players still seem like strong candidates: last year's starter, Ike Hilliard; former starter Michael Clayton; promising third-year man Maurice Stovall and 2008 free agent acquisition Antonio Bryant. However, here's a possibility that few have considered for the other starting spot:
Or perhaps Hilliard and Bryant, or Clayton and Stovall. While Tampa Bay's depth chart still lists Hilliard in that spot, it's quite possible that the Bucs will find a way to work all of their receivers into the game plan, and if that's the case then the actual "starter(s)" could depend on what play comes up first on the game plan.
Head Coach Jon Gruden pointed that fact out on Wednesday after insisting that the team still has not locked in on a definite starter at flanker.
"We're going to look at how the week goes, to be honest with you," said Gruden. "We've had a number of guys that have been inactive. I expect a lot of guys to participate. Who the starter is depends on the personnel that we're in, the play that we decide to choose. But we've got some candidates that are pretty good football players."
The Buccaneers arrived at this position after a training camp in which the receivers performed quite well across the board. There are pretty obvious strong points to all of the candidates, which leaves the Bucs facing a pleasant problem. Hilliard is ultra-dependable, an excellent route-runner and always a favorite target on third downs. Clayton continues to show signs that he can recapture his 80-catch rookie season form. Stovall's combination of size and athleticism make him an always-intriguing figure in the offense. And Bryant has proven that he still possesses the skills that made him a 1,000-yard receiver in Cleveland just three years ago.
Perhaps, then, the ultimate solution will be to find a way to get everyone involved and keep the depth chart from becoming too important.
Rumors swirled around the team on Wednesday that Bryant would be the starter opposite Galloway, but Gruden said after practice that he is not simply being evasive in waiting to make an announcement.
"Yes, [Bryant]'s a possibility," said Gruden. "He missed the last couple weeks with an injury. I've just got to see how things go here in the next couple days. Antonio, if healthy, he should play for us. And if Joey's healthy, you'd be foolish to take him off the field. But I can only update you here in the next couple days."
The Buccaneers released their first official injury report of the 2008 season on Wednesday afternoon and, despite the team's apparent good health, it's a long one.
That's a result of a tweak to the NFL's injury report policy this season, however, and not any sudden epidemic of muscle strains. In order to make the reports more specific than ever, teams are now required to list players as having "limited participation" in practice if they are held out for even one snap of what would have been their normal repetitions.
The policy reads as such: "The term 'normal repetitions' applies to a player's participation in both individual drills and the team portion of practice. Consequently, a player who participates in less than 100 percent of his normal repetitions during either the individual or team portion of practice should be listed as "Limited Participation." If a player's game status is in question for "Not Injury Related" reasons, that must appear on the Friday status report and be explained publicly and included on the release issued to the media."
Thus, the Buccaneers, and surely teams across the league, will often have longer lists under the limited participation header than in years past, even if the overall injury situation isn't terribly sever. The Bucs' first report on Wednesday was a good indication of that.
Guard Davin Joseph, who is still recovering from a significant foot injury and seems least likely of all the injured Bucs to play in the season opener, was the only player who did not participate in practice at all on Wednesday. However, eight other players were listed as having limited participation: fullback B.J. Askew (foot), wide receiver Antonio Bryant (knee), wide receiver Michael Clayton (chest), wide receiver Joey Galloway (groin), defensive tackle Jovan Haye (groin), center/guard Sean Mahan (team decision), linebacker Matt McCoy (groin) and safety Sabby Piscitelli (knee).
Mahan is not injured, but he understandably needed some time on the sideline to absorb what was going on at practice. Though he is quite familiar with the Bucs' offense from his first stint with the team (2003-06), Mahan has spent the last 18 months with the Pittsburgh Steelers and still needs to get everything straight in his mind.
"A lot of things haven't changed; there are some new things here and there but it's all coming back," said Mahan. "It's just back there in the back of my brain, so I've got to freshen up. I've been talking to Bill [Muir]…I think it will come back pretty quickly."
Two other Buccaneers were listed on the report with lingering ailments, though they both participated fully in practice on Wednesday: quarterback Jeff Garcia (calf) and tight end Ben Troupe (foot).
The Buccaneers are not required to release a more detailed injury report, including the out/doubtful/questionable/probable designations, until Friday.
The Saints' first injury report was a bit shorter though it included two players that did not practice at all on Wednesday: linebacker Troy Evans (ankle) and defensive tackle Hollis Thomas (triceps). Linebacker Mark Simoneau (back) was limited but the trio of running back Deuce McAllister (knee), cornerback Mike McKenzie (knee) and defensive tackle Brian Young (foot) practiced fully despite their various injuries.
Perhaps you've heard the common fable of the scorpion and the frog; it was on Matt Bryant's mind on Wednesday.
In the fable, a scorpion, unable to swim, attempts to convince a frog to carry him across a river. The frog resists at first, afraid that the scorpion will sting him. The scorpion convinces the frog to carry him by pointing out that if he stung the frog, the frog would sink and they would both drown. However, halfway across the river, the scorpion indeed stings the frog, dooming them both. As he begins to sink, the frog asks the scorpion why he did it.
"I'm a scorpion," he replies. "It's in my nature."
Though Bryant has a more pleasant ending in mind, he is convinced of this: Like the scorpion in the fable, he has to be true to his nature.
During the just-concluded preseason, the Buccaneers' placekicker misfired on five of his 12 field goal tries, including two from relatively close range. Five kicks do not come close to undermining the terrific work Bryant has done in three seasons as a Buccaneer. Still, it was a surprising set of outcomes for a veteran who missed only five times in 33 attempts all of last season and had been virtually automatic throughout the summer leading up to the preseason.
Bryant explained some of his temporary struggles in mechanical terms, saying he was not fully getting his hip through the ball. However, he also had a more overriding solution: Be true to his nature.
"I've not necessarily been going out there and just splashing it," said Bryant. "I've just kind of been trying to be too smooth."
Every kicker experiences peaks and valleys; the better ones just have fewer and shorter valleys. Bryant has had few problems in his three seasons as a Buccaneer, hitting on 66 of his 80 field goal attempts in that span, an 82.5% success rate. Thus, the team remains completely confident in him, and he harbors no doubts heading into the regular season.
"You just go out there and keep doing it," said Bryant. "If you can go back and look at my charts for this whole summer, I've probably missed about three kicks out of more than 100 kicks. I've never had this kind of offseason, preseason, camp before. You almost wished you would have missed a kick here and there. But it is what it is. It's over and done with, and here we go.
"Is it frustrating? Yes. Disappointing? Yes. But I can't do anything about it. We play this week, and this week and this Sunday is the only thing that matters."
Bryant did finish the preseason on an up note, making three field goals in the fourth quarter of the preseason finale to help the Bucs ice a 16-6 win at Houston.
"Obviously that's a good thing," he said. "My confidence has always been there, no matter what. I've probably been more frustrated than anything with the misses. It's just something that I see what I've got to do to correct it, and I will. But, yeah, I've made my last three going into this one. The slate is wiped clean. It's a brand new beginning, a brand new season."