E.J. Biggers has been here before. He knows all about being the "man" in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' "next man up" approach to injuries.
The Buccaneers placed starting left cornerback Aqib Talib, their top interceptor over the past four seasons, on injured reserve on Monday, conceding that Talib's injured right hamstring is not getting better. Talib has become Tampa Bay's go-to player when they need all-day blanket coverage on the opponent's top receiver, but he'll be unavailable when the Bucs take on Steve Smith and Roddy White over the next two weeks.
Biggers will be there, however, just as he has been there for the Buccaneers' defense, somewhat out of nowhere, since the beginning of the 2010 season. For all practical purposes, he's already taken over Talib's job for the past three weeks, as the latter corner has played just 12 snaps in that span due to his ongoing injury problem. It's simply official now; as with the last four games of the 2010 season, Biggers will be the starter at the all-important left cornerback spot. He knows he is stepping into – has already stepped into – some pretty big shoes.
"It's a very big loss," said Biggers of Talib's move to I.R. "He's one of the best cornerbacks in the league, in my opinion, stat-wise and everything. He does everything smaller corners can do, everything bigger corners can do – he does it all. It's a big loss, but 'next guy up.'
That said, in the locker room on Wednesday, Biggers didn't look particularly fazed by the situation. Just a few hours before the team's first practice of the week would begin, he was focused on what he planned to do on the fields behind One Buc Place that afternoon.
"I'm just going out there and trying to get better each and every day," said Biggers. "Everybody in the organization is trying to get better every day. That's the main goal of an NFL player. You just want to get better every day, no matter what it is. Ronde [Barber], Aqib, Tanard [Jackson], looking at those guys, I watch how they practice and play in games, and it's about nothing but getting better."
Of course, one wouldn't expect Biggers to be anxious about an expanded role at this point, given the depth of experience he has gathered over the last 16 months. In addition to his four games at left corner at the end of last season (three of them Buc victories), he also started the 2010 opener at the same spot (another win) and a sixth game that season as a third corner (win). This year he already has four more starts and, even when he's primarily playing the nickel role he's still essentially an outside cornerback, with Barber generally moving into the slot.
Biggers has faced many of the league's best receivers already, and with Talib often manning the opposite sideline, he's had quarterbacks throwing his way all season. There's virtually nothing he hasn't seen already, or an outsized talent he hasn't faced, so there's no trepidation on his part or the team's in putting him across the line from Smith, White, Brandon LaFell, Julio Jones or whomever.
"Being around those guys, the confidence level they play with, the intelligence and aggressiveness they play with, it just trickles down to everybody in our secondary," said Biggers of his veteran teammates. [Talib] and Ronde are my big brothers in this locker room. Those are the guys I look up to. I'm just going out there and trying to do the things [they do] each and every week, and that's play hard and try to be the best cornerback in the league."
The Buccaneers drafted Talib in the first round in 2008. The next year, they picked up Biggers in the seventh round. Moreover, Biggers suffered a shoulder injury during his first preseason and spent his entire rookie season on injured reserve. That doesn't sound like the best recipe for the "next man up" to replace Talib, but Biggers has been a revelation ever since he actually got to take the field in the regular season. He made the 53-man roster in 2010 and before long was the primary nickel back. That led to him being in position to take over for Talib the first time, and some analysts considered him one of the most underrated defensive backs in the league last season.
This year, Biggers has been one of the key figures in the Buccaneers' secondary, with 44 tackles, one interception and 10 passes defensed. At this point, he can essentially pass the torch of unknown expectations on to a less established player on the depth chart, who will hopefully follow in the same path.
Fourth-year man Elbert Mack, likely to become the primary nickel back, has played a lot of football for the Buccaneers already and is a known commodity. Perhaps the torch should go to rookie Anthony Gaitor; after all, he's a seventh-round pick, just like Biggers. Gaitor seems to have the right attitude for the challenge.
Asked Wednesday if he expected opposing quarterbacks to focus on him as a potential weak link in the secondary when he was in the game, Gaitor seemed to immediately develop a chip on his shoulder.
"Is that what I'm like?" he asked. "Alright, I'll be that guy they want to pick on. That will give me a chance to make plays and make an impact. I'm just going to go out there and have fun."
That may be the best approach for the "next man up."
Enjoying the Journey
There's no room for regret in Jovan Haye's NFL tale. Or perhaps, better put, no need for it.
Haye, who entered the league as a sixth-round pick with Carolina in 2005, has had his share of ups and downs over the past seven seasons. He played sparingly as a rookie and languished on Cleveland's practice squad for half of 2006, believing he was meant for better things. He found instant success in Tampa, however, and was a starter for two years. He signed a nice deal with the Tennessee Titans as an unrestricted free agent in 2009. His two years in Tennessee produced less than what he or the team had hoped, and he was released prior to the 2011 regular season. He has played in just one game this fall, spot duty for the Detroit Lions in Week 14. He has watched most of this NFL season on television.
But to regret any of the bad times would be to say Haye would change them if he could. It might even say that he is not happy where his NFL journey has taken him. But Haye wouldn't change a thing from the past seven years, and he's definitely happy where he is now: Back at One Buccaneer Place, where his pro career really took off.
"It's not tough at all because, if it wasn't this it wouldn't be my story," he said on Tuesday before his first Buccaneer practice in three years. "I love living out the story. I just want to praise God. I'm just living it out. I told myself I would get 13 years [in the NFL], and I'm going to get 13 years. I'm going to scratch and get 13 years. At the end of the day, I didn't start off in this business in a glamour position. I had to work my way up, had some bumps, hit some other bumps. What road do you know that's smooth?"
His two years in Tennessee provide a perfect example. Haye established himself as a productive, pass-rushing defensive tackle in Tampa (he had come into the league as an end) and the Titans thought he could put up even bigger numbers in their defense. The results were mixed and Haye only got through half of that original contract, but along the way he just happened to meet the woman who would become his wife.
"It was good," he said of his two years in Tennessee, predictably. "It wasn't exactly what I wanted, what it turned out being. Part of that's my fault and I've got to take the blame for that. But it was cool, a good experience. I met my wife, so I can't get mad at that one."
Haye has made it a little more than halfway through his 13-year plan, and if he makes it to the end he can certainly give some thanks to the Buccaneers' 2006 pro scouting department, which was led then by current Buccaneers General Manager Mark Dominik. The Bucs had seen Haye, who was still working at end for the Browns, as a perfect fit at their three-technique tackle spot, and that was the main impetus for signing him midway through 2006. The team had just traded defensive tackle Anthony McFarland to Indianapolis and needed depth and a potential impact player at the position as a replacement. Haye stepped right in and played nine games over the second half of the season.
He's been playing inside ever since. His one game of action this season came when the Lions were about to play division rival Minnesota but were without suspended defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and injured defensive tackle Nick Fairley.
"They gave me an opportunity [in 2006], Coach [Jon] Gruden and his staff and a couple of people upstairs that are still here. I'm just blessed, to tell you the truth. I'm just blessed for every opportunity I get. I wake up every morning and talk to my daughter and my wife. You're just blessed for every minute that you get. At the end of the day, this is a job but there are people out there struggling in less fortunate positions. You just enjoy the ride."
Obviously, Haye could help keep his career flowing into Year Number Eight in 2012 if he makes the most of a brief season-ending stint in Tampa, whether it be with the Buccaneers or elsewhere. He accurately points out that he has put plenty of his work on tape for potential scouts, but it certainly wouldn't hurt to add some extra evidence that he could still excel in the defensive system that first made him into a starter.
Morris said that opportunity could happen this weekend in Carolina, where his NFL career began.
"Jovan, it's not like he's going to have to do a bunch of big-time learning here," said Morris. "A couple new wrinkles, a couple different things called a different way, but other than that he should be able to hop right back into the system. He's lost a bunch of weight to get back into the Tampa Two ways and he's looking good out there. Obviously, we have rapport; he has rapport with a couple coaches on the staff [and] obviously, Mark Dominik. I look forward to him going out there and being able to contribute as soon as he's able to go out there and play. It could be this week. It could easily be this weekend."
Morris has had no complaints about his team's motivation this season, even as its playoff chances have faded away, and he doesn't expect to have any over the final two weeks. Professional pride, youthful exuberance and, for no small part, heated rivalries with Carolina and Atlanta should keep all 53 players dialed in for two more games.
But, if there were any Buccaneers who were having difficulty finding meaning or motivation in the next two outings, Morris would have a simple message for them: These games do count, and in a big way.
"These guys have got to learn the lessons that we're getting right now," he said. "You can't feel sorry for yourself because you're not going to the playoffs. You can't go out and [say], 'Oh, woe is me,' and, 'This stuff doesn't matter.' Everything matters, because this stuff is going to come up again and you've got to be ready to deal, be ready to win these football games and be ready to put yourselves in position to win. All of this stuff is big-time lessons for us, big-time lessons for our football team."
No, the Buccaneers won't be going to the playoffs even if they win their last two games, but you only have to rewind one year for a situation in which the team was facing adversity and still had a chance to advance. Next year could be the same. Morris wants his players to learn how to overcome problems, how to fix mistakes, so that they can do it when it does matter in the standings. He's seen some evidence of that growth in recent weeks.
"You've got to learn through adversity," he said. "What we've been able to do the last couple of weeks is shore up some fundamental issues. We've been able to get together and talk about some core beliefs. We've been able to actually go out there and play situational football out in the game and get more players involved."