TE Kellen Winslow needed just one season as a Buccaneer to record the most prolific season ever by a Tampa Bay tight end
Kellen Winslow has recorded at least four receptions in each of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' last eight games and at least two every time he's pulled on a Buccaneer uniform. So it's a good bet that he'll get his hands on at least a handful of passes in Sunday's 2009 season finale against the Atlanta Falcons, and each time he does so he'll be setting a new standard.
Tampa Bay traded second and fifth-round picks to the Cleveland Browns this past spring to get Winslow, believing they could turn the tight end position into the kind of weapon it hasn't been in Tampa in a long time. The Bucs also signed Winslow to a contract extension not long after making that swap, expecting him to be a cornerstone of the offense for years to come.
They have not been disappointed.
With 72 receptions for 828 yards and five touchdowns through the Bucs' first 15 games, Winslow has already registered the most prolific season ever by a Tampa Bay tight end. His reception total has easily eclipsed the former mark of 62 set by Jackie Harris in 1995, and his yardage mark beat an even older record, Jimmie Giles' 786 in 1981. Only two tight ends in the entire NFC – established stars Tony Gonzalez and Jason Witten – have more receptions than Winslow at this point. And he has done it all while fighting a weekly battle with a sore knee.
So every grab by Winslow on Sunday will push his new Buccaneer records even higher. That might be a bittersweet achievement for the former first-round pick out of Miami, since he's intensely competitive and his team will not be playing deeper into January. Still, it's important to the Buccaneers as they attempt to construct their offense for the future.
Tampa Bay Head Coach Raheem Morris says Winslow has been everything the Bucs had hoped for, "and a little bit more." The Bucs knew their new tight end was headstrong, but they also knew how much succeeding as a team meant to him. When Morris took exception to an early-season play on which he believed Winslow could have picked up a first down by charging straight upfield after a third-down catch, the matter was resolved instantly.
"He has come in here, he has worked hard, he has practiced hard, he has played hard," continued Morris. "He has done everything that I have asked, even when we had our difference among men on a play that happened a long time ago. There was a big third down and he didn't get it. He looked at me right away and told me that it was his fault and he should have gotten it. That's all that he has been doing since. He has been a big-time third-down threat for us and will continue to be."
Winslow has two of the Bucs' three 100-yard receiving games this season. In Tampa Bay's dramatic upset of the New Orleans Saints last weekend, Winslow caught four passes for 76 yards, including one critical 35-yarder on the first play of the fourth quarter that kick-started the team's 14-point comeback. All four of Winslow's receptions in that game produced first downs, and two of them converted important third downs.
"I brought it to his attention the other day that it was a change in the New Orleans Saints game," said Morris. "You see Winslow catch the ball and put his pads down."
Winslow leads the Buccaneers in every receiving category this season, and he has notably added approximately one more catch and 25 more yards per game since rookie quarterback Josh Freeman took over as the starter. Those two have an opportunity to form a very prolific offensive duo for years to come.
"The progress of that and the progress of him and the young quarterback, what he has been able to do as far as the record books here in Tampa…I am just excited about everything he has brought to us," said Morris.
New Year's Day 2010 brought the Buccaneers' last injury report of the 2009 season, and the one that includes game-status designations in addition to the players' practice participation.
The Bucs' injury report expanded by two players on Friday, to a total of eight, but half of those men are considered probable to suit up on Sunday, including Winslow. Defensive tackle Chris Hovan has been dealing with a cold this week but he was able to practice on Friday, as was center Jeff Faine, who has a sore back. Wide receiver Antonio Bryant has a lingering groin strain but is also expected to play against the Falcons, even though he was given the day off on Friday.
The Bucs' four questionable players for Sunday's game are running back Derrick Ward (knee), guard Jeremy Zuttah (toe), defensive tackle Roy Miller (hamstring) and defensive end Michael Bennett (toe). Other than Zuttah, all are attempting to play through ailments that have bothered them in recent weeks. Zuttah is a new addition to the list, and if he were unable to play the Bucs would have to turn to an inexperienced option at left guard.
"We have Shawn Murphy, we have some other options," said Morris. "You have Jonathan Compas that can play some of that stuff. Zuttah is a tough guy. This is crunch time for him. We will see what he is and what he is made of right now."
The Falcons' injury report is 12 players deep, and every man on the list was either limited or held out of practice again on Friday. As a result, the entire dozen is considered questionable for Sunday's game.
That list includes Atlanta's starting quarterback, Matt Ryan (toe) and running back, Michael Turner (ankle), as well as Gonzalez (calf), the Falcons' leading pass-catcher. Turner was the only one of the three not to practice at all on Friday.
Atlanta also has both of its kicking specialists – placekicker Matt Bryant (hamstring) and punter Michael Koenen (head) – on the injury report, though both were able to participate in practice in a limited fashion on both Thursday and Friday.
Rounding out the Falcons' injury report are linebacker Curtis Lofton (shoulder/hamstring), safety Charlie Peprah (hamstring), wide receiver Eric Weems (head), defensive end Jamaal Anderson (chest), defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux (shoulder), tackle Sam Baker (elbow/hamstring) and defensive tackle Thomas Johnson (knee). Lofton, Anderson, Babineaux, Baker and Johnson are listed as starters on Atlanta's depth chart; Peprah, Weems and Johnson were the only ones who didn't participate in practice in some capacity on Friday.
Morris touched on several other topics as the Buccaneers completed their final week of practice in the 2009 season.
"It definitely is. That's why last year in the draft you get that guy, you go get a quarterback. You eliminate that issue, you eliminate that problem. You build around that guy and you find out what you need for that guy. You do everything you can for that guy to make him successful and you hopefully 10 years from now talk about whether he should be a first-ballot Hall of Fame type guy and all of that. At the same time, it's patience."
"I try not to look at stats. I try to look at results, effort and hustle because stats are for losers. We won the last two weeks so you can't call us that right now. You have to look at [the secondary], you have to challenge those guys and have to give them options. You have to give them things that you know they can do. You have to give them confidence. They have been trying to develop confidence around here. We can still get better."
"I don't know if it's confidence for me. I think it's more confidence for the team. When it's your game plan it's easy to have confidence in it because you feel like you know. But it's just confidence for the team. You talk about change, changes you can believe in, and that was one of them. You talk about running the football even though you're down 17-3. You talk about being able to do that and the mental toughness to do that, the mental grind to do that. It's tough. But now you've got the wheels turning over there on other people's defense. They're not sure what you're going to do. You don't become one-dimensional, you don't put a lot on that kid's shoulders or those wideouts. You just go out there and play your natural game plan and the defense steps up and they play better because of it and you get a win out of it."
"That's what you play for. If you're not playing to go to the tournament than I don't know what you're doing it for. The only thing you play for and the only thing you coach for is an opportunity to win that ring. You've got one as an assistant coach, now you want one as a head coach, and all these players want one. I don't know how many players in the building still have that ring or still know what it looks like for that matter. You've got to try to get back every year. That's the whole goal. The Pittsburgh Steelers won one last year and I bet you they don't feel like they won it because they want to go back and have an opportunity to win again. It's that type of drive that makes the NFL special every single year."
"Winning brings all that. I don't think that's an issue around here, especially in Tampa. People here love football. They can't wait to get back. When you're down in the fourth quarter and they're gone, you know why. You're looking at Giants fans and Jets fans and all those people. I tell you what, though: Those New Orleans Saints fans stayed in there the whole game. That was an eerie silence leaving there but it seemed like it was still 70,000 looking at me as I walked out. They were angry and quiet. We'll get to that day one day, and our fans understand. They'll come, they'll stay and they'll show up. Right now, they're rushing to tailgate. We've got to get them to stay in there, and they will."