LB Derrick Brooks reluctantly admits that some of his speed and quickness were robbed by a foot injury during the season's first half
Last season, after a 4-4 start, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers went 6-2 down the stretch. During that span, RB Warrick Dunn ran for 767 yards, racked up 995 combined rushing and receiving yards and scored seven touchdowns while Derrick Brooks posted 88 tackles, one sack, two forced fumbles, four passes defensed and the big stop any time the Bucs needed it.
The Bucs are again 4-4. If their season is going to end with another big half, they're probably going to need a whole Brooks and Dunn.
With those two Pro Bowlers leading the way, Tampa Bay outscored its opponents 183-131 in the second half and held seven of eight foes to 17 points or less. In the one game that the scoring went well over that mark, the Monday night masterpiece against St. Louis, Dunn scored three touchdowns to lead the Bucs to a 38-35 victory.
The first half of 2001 has been something less than that stretch run of 2000 for Tampa Bay, and that is in no small part due to the parallel foot injuries that have limited their offensive and defensive leaders. So far, Dunn has compiled 224 rushing yards, 450 combined yards and four touchdowns, averaging just 2.9 yards per carry. Brooks' 79 tackles, two interceptions and five passes defensed are similar to those 2000 half-season totals, but he had 23 of those stops in one game and has not always been the big stopper the Bucs to which the Bucs are accustomed.
Dunn missed two games in October (Green Bay and Minnesota) and did not record more than 13 carries or 31 rushing yards in the three games surrounding those two contests. He has dealt with a hamstring strain at times but is currently limited only by his 'turf-toe' ailment. He is slowly rounding back into form, as evidenced by his 111 combined rushing and receiving yards last Sunday in Detroit.
Brooks hasn't missed any games this season – or in his NFL career, for that matter – but he has come very close on several occasions. Defensive Coordinator Monte Kiffin even wondered aloud after the Tennessee game on October 14 if Brooks should have been on the field. He has a foot sprain similar to Dunn's, and neither one is going to go away completely without rest.
"For my foot to heal, I'm going to have to stop playing for a month or two month, but that's definitely not a possibility," said Dunn. "I have the offseason for that. Actually, last week I was as close to the old form as possible. I'm getting better. It's just something where I'm going to have to play with the pain. That's going to be a part of my game."
That's the good news. Both Brooks and Dunn claim to be getting very close to being the players they were in 2000 and the years before. The Buccaneers' training room agrees.
"The other day, I started to get into it a little bit and I was close on some runs," said Dunn, referring to the Detroit game. "It's just a matter of getting back into the flow and being able to call the running game. The games that we've struggled in, we've gotten behind early and couldn't call the running game. Hopefully, we can stay in this game, call our runs and hopefully some long runs will come."
Brooks seemed no more willing to sit out and allow the injury to heal than Dunn, but he has avoided aggravating the strain for weeks and is experiencing less discomfort each game. He believes the foot is ready for the test of a the physical style of play the Chicago Bears are going to bring to town on Sunday. With the Bears' rejuvenated rushing attack and short passing game, Brooks' weakside linebacker position will be crucial.
"I feel good," said Brooks. "Every week, it's getting better. I think probably the closest I've been to 100 percent in the last six weeks is this week. We're going to need it. I feel good and I'm going to tackle well. I feel good about my progress and where I am at this point."
Brooks has been reluctant to use his foot injury as an excuse, but now that he is nearing full strength he will admit that the sprain has robbed him of some of his signature running skills. How much he has lost over the last six weeks is not an important issue to the four-time Pro Bowler.
"Obviously, I lost a little speed and quickness with my foot," said Brooks. "To evaluate and look behind is meaningless. I played and I made some plays that I would have made if I was healthy. I just haven't made as many plays. With our defense not playing as well, those plays are kind of magnified.
"It's a matter of being in a position to make a play. Do you make the play or don't you make the play? Eighty-five or 90 percent of the time, I did. I'd miss one or two or game. But when I'm healthy, I may miss one or two a game, so it's hard to say from that perspective. It's do you make the play or don't you?"
And in the second half of the season, it's will he or won't he? If Brooks does make the big play down the stretch, and if Dunn is back to his usual electric running style, the Bucs might just duplicate that 6-2 second-half march of last season.
The Bucs also got positive injury news at practice on Wednesday as three key players returned to action: CB Donnie Abraham, WR Jacquez Green and DT Anthony McFarland. Abraham was the only one of the three to complete the full two-hour session, but Green and McFarland did well during their pre-arranged partial comebacks.
"We got Donnie Abraham back," said Dungy in a pleased tone. "He went through the whole practice. Jacquez and Anthony went through part of practice and that was our plan, to bring them back slowly, and they did great."
None of the three played in Detroit. Green has been out the longest, three games, with groin and abdomen strains. The groin strain has healed and the speedy receiver is working on casting off his abdomen discomfort.
"Quez is better," said Dungy. "He's still got some tenderness in his abdomen and still can't quite cut it loose 100 percent. He'll do a little bit more tomorrow, too, and hopefully we'll be able to make a decision by Friday."
McFarland has missed two games but has remained on target for the original estimation of a return in time to play Chicago. He had an MCL sprain in his right knee but has worked hard at his recovery and now just needs to test it out to his own satisfaction.
"He did well," said Dungy. "We held him out of some of the team work, but he actually did his individual work very well and got into some of the inside running drills. I think it held up well, and as he starts to get his confidence back, he'll be fine."
Both Green and McFarland will gradually build up their practice times and suit up for the Chicago game, if the team's plan moves ahead without setbacks.
DT Warren Sapp sat out practice thanks to fluid buildup in his left knee, an injury that has him on the official injury report as probable. During the team's lunch/media session, he was sent to a nearby pool for a workout in the water and may be back on solid ground during Thursday's practice.
"Warren's still got a little swelling," said Dungy. "He actually banged his knee on the turf on that next-to-last play. It wasn't bad Monday and Tuesday – actually it swelled a little bit more on Tuesday – and so we're just trying to work that out. We think he should be back to practice hopefully tomorrow but if not, then by Friday."