After he tore his Achilles tendon on May 10, it seemed like wishful thinking, but now it appears close to a certainty: Da'Quan Bowers will play for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2012.
Bowers took another step towards that impressively swift return on Wednesday when the Buccaneers started the clock on the 21-day evaluation period allowed by the rules of the reserve/physically unable to perform (PUP) list. Bowers now has up to three weeks to practice with the team while not counting against the 53-man roster.
The second-year defensive end began the season on the PUP list as he continued his recovery from the surgery that repaired his injury in May. During the first six weeks of the season, he was not allowed to practice with the team. Now, however, he can show the coaches just how far he has come, and that will hopefully lead to his activation to the 53-man roster.
The Buccaneers can choose to move Bowers to the active roster at any point in the next three weeks, at which point he could begin playing in games. If they choose not to do so before the 21 days are up, Bowers would remain on the PUP list for the remainder of the year and would not be eligible to practice or play at any point in 2012.
While the Bucs started the clock on Bowers on Wednesday, the countdown for getting Bowers back on the field on game day isn't quite that dramatic. The team could choose to put Bowers on the active roster at the end of the three weeks, even if they felt he was still a week or two away from being able to play. The cost would be opening a spot on the roster by removing another player, but otherwise Bowers could simply be a game-day inactive until he is ready to play.
That said, the Buccaneers didn't have to start the clock on Wednesday, and doing so is an indication that they believe Bowers has a good shot of returning within three weeks. Tampa Bay plays New Orleans on Sunday at Raymond James Stadium and then has a quick turnaround for a Thursday night game on the artificial turf of the Metrodome in Minneapolis. The next game after that is at Oakland on November 4.
On Monday, Head Coach Greg Schiano lauded Bowers for his commitment to returning in 2012 during the recovery process.
"He's done an incredible job with his rehab," said Schiano. "It's kind of four different phases. One is surgical, where it is kind of waiting; then it is the training room; then it is out on the grass where he is working with our trainers and our strength coach, running and pushing things; and now here comes the fourth part and that is literally going out and playing."
Bowers has been able to run and do other physically activity under the eye of the Bucs' training staff, but Schiano points out that practice is a different beast, and that's doubly true for live games. Schiano said the team would have to see how Bowers reacts to the "torqueing and twisting" that come with actual contact with other players. While the team is optimistic about getting Bowers back in the mix, especially after the season-ending knee injury suffered by defensive end Adrian Clayborn in September, the team will still place Bowers' long-term health first.
"I think with situations like these you just really have to play it by ear," said Schiano. "It is how he responds to the increase workload as he does a little bit more. If there is any question, we are going to wait. We are not going to put him in harm's way. He's excited to play, he's champing at the bit. We are just going to hold him back until we know it is all good."
The NCAA's sack leader in 2010 while at Clemson, Bowers was the Buccaneers' second-round pick in the 2011 draft. He was eased slowly into the action after returning from January knee surgery, but was in the starting lineup at left end by Week 12. He finished his rookie campaign with 30 tackles, 1.5 sacks, five tackles for loss, eight quarterback pressures, one fumble recovery and five passes defensed.