Dirk Koetter spoke with the press on Monday afternoon, a few hours after the Tampa Bay Buccaneers returned from their bye week with an extra practice to begin Week Seven. Since his last briefing Koetter had an opportunity to review the season so far and gather updates on the status of the team's roster.
So, upon further review, here are a few notes of interest as the Buccaneers get back to work in preparation for a trip to San Francisco.
1. It looks like the Bucs' bye week might serve its dual purpose perfectly: Recharge the batteries of those who have seen a lot of playing time and, potentially, heal the injuries of those who haven't.
The Buccaneers raced into their bye week with a hugely important Monday night victory in Charlotte, but in another sense they also limped into their one season break. The team won its second intra-division game despite a lengthy list of unavailable starters (to be fair, the Panthers were also missing some key players, including quarterback Cam Newton) but will hopefully be closer to full strength after the time off.
After being left to their own devices from Thursday to Sunday, Buccaneer players returned to team headquarters on Monday for a "bonus" practice. In addition to wide receiver Louis Murphy, who began a 21-day window that should lead to his return from the PUP list, tight end Luke Stocker (ankle) and wide receiver Cecil Shorts (hamstring) also practiced for the first time since Week Two.
That still left quite a few sidelined players, including defensive linemen Gerald McCoy, Clinton McDonald and Robert Ayers, but Koetter indicated that he does lean toward giving some extra rest to returning players in a week with an extra practice.
Absolutely, and we did that today," said Koetter. "We held several guys out. We got a few guys back out there – Luke Stocker was back out there, Cecil Shorts was back out there. Louis Murphy now has come off [his inactive period], he's started his [window where] he's got 21 days where we can practice him before we have to activate him at some point. It was great to see Murph out there."
There's little doubt that most, if not all, of the players enjoyed the opportunity to get away from the daily grind for half of a week. However, Koetter thinks they were just as eager to get back to work on Monday, insisting that most players enjoy every opportunity they get to practice or play. He pointed not only to Murphy's obvious desire to return to the field but also center Joe Hawley overcoming several potential injuries last Monday night to get back in the game.
"These are professional football players, they want to play football," said Koetter. "It would have been easy for [Hawley] at any point there to say, 'I'm done for the night.'"
On Monday, Koetter's team showed how pleased they were to be back with an impressive showing on the practice field.
"They had a lot of energy, and it was great to get some guys out there that we haven't had out there for a while. On these extra practices, we tend to give more reps to our younger guys but our younger guys have been playing a lot anyway. I enjoy those practices. The energy was high and I thought we got something done."
2. With the top of the running back depth chart hit by injuries, in-season additions such as Jacquizz Rodgers and Antone Smith give Koetter and company some known quantities for their play-calling.
Pictures of the Top 10 Niners in Week 6, according to their Pro Football Focus player grade.
Running back Jacquizz Rodgers, who didn't join the team until Week Two of the regular season, got a career-high 30 carries and 35 offensive touchdowns in Monday's win over the Panthers. Koetter explained that as a matter of going with the hot hand, suggesting the original plan would have been to give the ball to Rodgers about 18-20 times.
Rodgers made the most of it, gaining 101 rushing yards, catching five passes for another 28 yards and repeatedly moving the chains on a night where top backs Doug Martin and Charles Sims were unavailable. Martin hasn't played since straining a hamstring in Week Two and Sims was placed on injured reserve with a knee ailment prior to Monday's game.
Koetter said the original plan called for a slightly large role for young running back Peyton Barber, who ended up with six yards on three carries. The only other back on the roster was Russell Hansbrough, like Barber an undrafted rookie, and he had only been promoted to the 53-man roster on the day of the game.
A week later, the Buccaneers signed seventh-year veteran back Antone Smith. Just like Rodgers, Smith was a reserve back for the Falcons when Koetter was Atlanta's offensive coordinator. That overlap is no coincidence; Koetter clearly valued the known commodity in this case.
"We're in a situation where we need depth and we need experience," said the coach. "Really, when we were at that game the other night in Carolina, we had Jacquizz and two undrafted rookies who hadn't really played much in the NFL. We're in the heart of our schedule; we need guys that have played. What Antone brings is experience and speed. He's also an excellent special teams player."
General Manager Jason Licht and his pro scouting staff maintain a list year-round of available options at every position, precisely so sudden depth chart shortages can be addressed quickly and confidently. Sometimes there isn't much separating those options, and prior knowledge of a player can be the deciding factor.
"As a coach, with guys that you know at least you know what they are," said Koetter. "There's no unknown. I can go in and say, 'He can learn it, he can play on special teams, here are his strengths and weaknesses on offense.' As a coach, you can build around what you know. It's the unknowns that are hard to plan for."
3. Even at 2-3, the Buccaneers are still in position to meet their goals for the 2016 season.
Not only did the Buccaneers hopefully shorten their injury list during the bye week, but they also saw their deficit in the NFC South shrink. The first-place Falcons lost a close game at Seattle to fall to 4-2, which is a game and a half ahead of both the 2-3 Buccaneers and the 2-3 Saints. New Orleans dealt Carolina its second loss in seven days and put the three-time defending champs in a 1-5 hole.
The Buccaneers are the only team in the NFC South that remains undefeated in division play, having also toppled Atlanta in the season opener. That 2-0 intra-division record is encouraging, as is the fact that eight of the 16 NFC teams have a record somewhere between 2-3 and 3-2.
"You just look around the league – other than two or three teams that have jumped out to really fast starts, I think the league has really shrunk up and come back together," said Koetter. "Fortunately we were able to get that win last Monday night and I think our guys can see the light, that if we play good football, we play complementary football, we don't turn it over, we get some takeaways on the other side, that we can be right there."
If the Buccaneers do get most of their injured players back soon, they might be able to make a run with a road game against the 1-5 San Francisco 49ers followed by four home contests over the next five weeks.
"We've also done a good job of weathering some difficult storms from an injury standpoint," said Koetter. "It's one thing to test your depth when your injuries are spread out across your team, but we've been hit particularly hard at two positions, defensive line and running back. I'm proud of the way our guys have hung in there. We've had guys step up at both positions."