Head Coach Jon Gruden is awaiting test results to see how serious the Bucs' depth issues in the backfield will be
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are 4-2 and tied for the lead in the NFC South, with victories in hand over the two other teams in that tie. As with most teams in the league that are in good shape in the standings after six weeks, that is partially due to how well the Buccaneers have overcome their early-season injuries.
Most notably, the Bucs have stayed productive on offense without the services of speed demon Joey Galloway; they've won behind two different quarterbacks; they've tapped into their linebacker depth due to leg injuries to Derrick Brooks and Barrett Ruud; and they've managed to run the ball well during long absences by guard Davin Joseph and fullback B.J. Askew.
"I'm proud of our guys," said Head Coach Jon Gruden on Monday, less than 24 hours after his team dismantled the Carolina Panthers, 27-3. "The effort's outstanding. Someone's gone down, someone's stepped up. That goes at quarterback, that goes at linebacker, that goes across the board on our football team. That's one of the reasons why we're still hanging around."
Earnest Graham was the latest to step up on Sunday, volunteering to move from tailback to fullback after a knee injury suffered by Byron Storer in the first quarter. Graham fulfilled those duties magnificently, to the delight of his coaches and teammates, and Buccaneers were able to stay balanced on offense against the Panthers. However, Storer's injury could have repercussions beyond last Sunday's game, especially given Askew's still-uncertain status. Gruden admitted as much on Monday.
"With B.J.'s injury lingering and continuing and Byron getting hurt yesterday, we're in trouble right now at fullback," he said. "Obviously moving a tight end into that position has always been a part of our contingency plan. But we'll see about Byron, how his MRI looks, and we'll see how B.J. feels and just [figure it out] in the coming days."
Storer was hurt on a kickoff coverage down, which underscores the double-edged blow of his potential loss. The second-year fullback, an undrafted free agent out of Cal in 2007, has also emerged as one of the team's best special teams players. On Monday morning, with some test results still pending, Gruden could only refer to Storer as "very questionable."
The Bucs could continue to use Graham as a fullback, but it's clear that Gruden sees great value in the veteran back as a ballcarrier. Though he had just 11 yards on five carries against Carolina thanks to his position switch, Graham came into the game as the Bucs' leading rusher, with 393 yards and a robust 5.9 yards per carry.
The team could also explore trade possibilities, an option that obviously came up on Monday because the NFL's trade deadline is just a day away, at 4:00 p.m. on Tuesday, October 14. The Bucs have been one of the few teams to utilize the trade market in recent years, but it is still an unlikely method for shaping the roster, especially during the season. Players acquired at midseason can have difficulty absorbing an entire playbook in short order.
"We've got a lot of injuries," conceded Gruden. "And trades, although there is a trade deadline there are not a lot of trades that are made, at least in the last 10 or 15 years. But we'll always make an effort to look into who's available, and if we see somebody there that can help us we'll try to acquire them."
The Bucs could also find help for the backfield internally, though not at fullback. Tuesday will mark the first day that running back Cadillac Williams, injured last September in Carolina, is eligible to come off the Reserve/Physically Unable to Perform list.
However, the Buccaneers actually have a pretty lengthy window during which to evaluate Williams, who has worked diligently for over a year to come back from a very serious knee injury. In fact, it could be up to six more weeks before a final decision must be made on the fourth-year back.
That's because there are two different clocks that start ticking when a six-week PUP stint is up. First, a team has a three-week window in which to decide whether or not to return the player to practice. In other words, the Buccaneers could let Williams begin practicing with the rest of the team beginning on Wednesday, or they could wait 21 days to make that decision and let Williams continue rehabbing his knee as he has been.
Once a team returns a PUP player to practice, it has three weeks from that point before it has to make a roster decision on that player. At the end of those three weeks, the player is either activated to the 53-man roster or, if he is still unable to play, placed on injured reserve.
Thus, it could be as many as six more weeks before a Williams decision is necessary. Of course, the Bucs are eager to have the services of the 2005 NFL Rookie of the Year in their backfield again. The only concrete decision made so far is that Williams will not be activated to the 53-man roster this week.
"We're going to keep looking at him," said Gruden. "We've said it time and time again: He's getting better and better and better. We're going to continue to work with him privately without activating him onto the 53-man roster immediately. But we really like what we've seen. It's been over a year now since he's had the injury. All of his hard work is going to pay off but it won't be this week that he's activated, but it could be coming soon."