It was Saturday at One Buccaneer Place, on the first morning of October, but not exactly Saturday. It was also sort of Friday, but not a normal Friday.
With their next game scheduled for Monday night, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were afforded an extra day of preparation for the Indianapolis Colts, and Head Coach Raheem Morris tweaked his usual schedule here and there to spread the right amount of work over five days instead of four. His team followed something akin to a usual Friday practice routine on Saturday morning – the typical review day – but also transferred some of that work to Thursday's session at Tropicana Field and Friday night's trip to the University of South Florida.
Sunday, when the rest of the NFL is playing out Week Four, will be a Saturday for the Buccaneers (walk-through day) and Monday…well, Monday will be when the excitement begins.
So the Bucs were still at full speed on Saturday morning for their one-hour practice, and that proved to be a good test for linebacker Quincy Black, who returned to practice, and quarterback Josh Johnson, who tested his lightly sprained ankle and found it in good shape.
Black, who missed last Sunday's win over Atlanta with his own ankle injury, remains something of a question mark for Monday's game, but it was definitely a good sign that he was able to get back on the field for the last full-go practice of the week. He had practiced on Thursday but then sat out Friday, and the rest must have done him good, as Morris said he looked better on Saturday than he had earlier in the week. Black was listed as questionable on Saturday's more detailed injury report, which includes game-status designations for the first time. His fellow starting linebacker, Geno Hayes, is not on the report at all after he was cleared to play in mid-week following the mild concussion he suffered against Atlanta.
Johnson tweaked his ankle on Thursday and was subsequently somewhat limited on Friday night, but he too is feeling better and is considered probable after Saturday's encouraging practice. That's a matter of some significance even though Johnson is not the starter and has played only a handful of snaps so far this season. The Bucs are carrying only two quarterbacks on their 53-man roster this year, Johnson and starter Josh Freeman, and if there was significant concern about Johnson's availability on Monday they might have to make a roster move.
There were four Buccaneers who did not practice on Saturday: tackle James Lee (knee), wide receiver Sammie Stroughter (foot) and tight ends Kellen Winslow (knee) and Zach Pianalto. Lee and Stroughter have missed the last two games and have already been ruled out for the Monday-nighter, and Pianalto is considered doubtful to play. Winslow is questionable and missed a little more time than usual this week, but he has yet to miss a game since joining the Buccaneers in 2009.
If Black and Winslow are eventually cleared to play on Monday – they'll be evaluated again that evening before the game for a final decision – the only remaining lineup decision for the team will be who to start at free safety in the absence of Cody Grimm. Grimm landed on injured reserve on Wednesday, leaving fourth-year man Corey Lynch and first-year player Larry Asante to battle it out for the open spot. Morris has suggested all week that both Lynch and Asante could see time on defense, and he seemed even more sure of that on Saturday. As to who gets the opening snap, that may not be known until Monday night.
"You're probably going to see both of them," said Morris. "Which one's going to run out of the tunnel [as the starter during introductions], I don't know…we'll probably introduce offense."
As for the days leading up to Monday, Morris thinks the altered schedule has worked well. The Wednesday and Thursday practices were close to the normal routine, but the work later in the week had some new elements that paid off.
"We got a nice little quick Friday, kind of cut it down a little bit, kind of broke the Friday up somewhat," said Morris. "We had a nice night at USF last night; that was great. That was awesome, actually. I took everybody there under the lights. The team was giving me a bunch of static at first because it was [still] light, but eventually got dark and we had a ball. It was good to be out there at that time and get the bodies acclimated to getting up late, sleeping in. You've got to practice some of those things we take for granted. It's a little bit harder than waking up at six in the morning and coming to work and thinking you've got a game. I just wanted to get them acclimated to getting up early."
Bucs to See Painter's Work
With Peyton Manning still sidelined by a neck injury and replacement veteran Kerry Collins dealing with a concussion, the Colts have announced that they will turn to third-year man Curtis Painter under center on Monday night. It will be Painter's first career start – not surprising since he's spent his brief career as Manning's backup.
Painter has played in three games, including last week's Sunday night barnburner with the Pittsburgh Steelers. He has thrown 39 passes, completing 13 of them (33.3%) for 143 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions. His best moment as a pro so far came last Sunday, when he drove the Colts 80 yards for the game-tying score late in the fourth quarter. Pittsburgh eventually countered with a last-second field goal to win the game, 23-20.
As relatively recent outings against Matt Moore, Mike Stanton and Charlie Batch have emphasized, the Buccaneers no better than to assume an easy night against a backup quarterback. Painter hasn't produced a large enough body of work yet to say definitively how successful of an NFL passer he will be, but he is certainly well prepared.
"Painter's a good quarterback," said Morris. "He's consistent, he throws the ball well. He can go out there and execute the offense. He's been there for awhile and he's getting his opportunity."
In fact, it's exactly that relative lack of exposure that tells the Bucs to be cautious and expect the best. Backups-turned-starters routinely seize the opportunity in the NFL, and Tampa Bay doesn't want to provide Painter with the first step in his own emergence.
"The whole problem with those kinds of guys is you don't know when that guy's going to turn into Tom Brady," said Morris. "Hopefully he doesn't do it Monday night and we'll have a chance."
A Welcome Reunion
The ESPN Monday Night Football crew visited One Buccaneer Place on Saturday, which meant the return of Morris' immediate predecessor – and former boss – Jon Gruden. Gruden, who coached the Buccaneers from 2002-08, now does color commentary for the MNF crew along with Ron Jaworski, as Mike Tirico handles the play-by-play.
Gruden watched Saturday's practice from the sideline and later sat down with Morris to discuss the Buccaneers and Monday's game. Morris was pleased to see his former mentor.
"It's like I tell all my guys – I couldn't have worked for a better guy," said Morris, who began his NFL coaching career as a defensive quality control coach on Gruden's first Tampa Bay staff in 2002. "He treated me nice, treated me great. He helped me develop my career since I was an assistant DB coach, forget just DB coach. I couldn't say enough positive things about how I was treated when he was here and how he just handled everything.
"We shot the bull on the field and that was great. He talked about what the defense was like. He was great to be around. It's always fun to be around Coach Gruden."