The Bucs are preparing for a do-or-die Wild Card game that is now only three days away
After two weeks of lineup juggling, two long weeks of protecting an injured roster and looking for alternate ways to win, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are back to practicing the way they did for four months en route to the 2007 NFC South title.
"There is no resting of players this week, I can assure you that," said Head Coach Jon Gruden, who was saddled with the hard decisions of who to play in Weeks 16 and 17. No such issue anymore.
"Whoever's physically ready to go will be the guy going."
The last two weeks of the season weren't easy on anyone, as the Bucs played many of their starters only sparingly and lost back-and-forth games to San Francisco and Carolina. But that's behind the team now, and this week's preparations are a return to normalcy.
"You've just got to do the best you can to do what's right for your players," said Gruden. "Given the injuries that we have had and given the circumstances of last week's game we felt, in fairness to our football team, the best chance we would have against New York would be to have as many healthy front-line guys as possible. We're anxious to play and we'll look forward to the results."
So the question is, how many healthy front-line players do the Buccaneers have now that the Wild Card game is only three days away?
The two weeks of limited action have clearly made the team feel better about the overall health of such key men as Jeff Garcia, Joey Galloway, Ike Hilliard, Earnest Graham, Jermaine Phillips and Barrett Ruud. But, even with that understandably cautious approach, the Bucs are still wondering about the availability of two starters as the playoffs loom.
Strongside linebacker Cato June appears to be the more significant worry, as he missed his second straight practice on Thursday due to a foot injury.
"Obviously it's a concern," said Gruden. "This is a big game and he's inactive again today. We'll see how he is tomorrow, but the reality is he's got [a foot] injury and it's one we're obviously concerned about."
Rookie Arron Sears, the valuable left guard starter, sat out Wednesday with an ankle injury but did return to practice in a limited fashion on Thursday. Gruden has clearly felt better about Sears' status all week than he has about June's.
"I'm optimistic because he showed some improvement today," said Gruden. "God knows we need him in a game like this. We're optimistic, yet cautiously optimistic."
If Sears is unable to play, the team would likely turn to Matt Lehr at left guard, as they did against Carolina after Sears left the game. Lehr, who can play any of the interior line spots, has 48 career NFL starts, including 26 over the last two seasons with Atlanta.
The Bucs' contingency plan at strongside 'backer is another player with significant starting experience – and in this case he is a former starter with Tampa Bay. Sixth-year man Ryan Nece, who was the Bucs' first-string strongside linebacker for most of the 2003, 2005 and 2006 seasons, would likely get the call. Nece started the Bucs' last playoff game, the Wild Card loss to Washington at the end of the 2005 season, and helped the Bucs' defense hold the Redskins to just 120 yards of total offense.
Gruden said Nece's experience would give the team some comfort if they have to play without June.
"Obviously he's a starter around here, started in a playoff game a couple years ago," said the coach. "As I said, we'll have a plan, and we'll hope Cato gets better fast."
The Bucs have also trained rookie Quincy Black on the strong side this season. Obviously, Black lacks Nece's experience, but the Bucs' love his athleticism and they've had a chance to see him in action the last two weeks.
"We'll do the best we can and obviously we'll lean on somebody else," said Gruden. "If it's Ryan Nece or Quincy Black, they're here for a reason. We did get an opportunity to play them in the last game or so to get them ready for this. As I said earlier, there's a real benefit in sitting some of your guys down, giving some [others] experience."
By now you've probably heard about the unusual trend of winners in the NFC South, where the champion each season since 2003 has been the team that finished last the year before.
The consistency of that turnover is remarkable, but the "worst-to-first" climb, such as the ones the Bucs executed in 2007, is not terribly uncommon in the NFL, especially in the NFC. Tampa Bay was the only team to pull it off this year, but it happened in two of the four divisions in 2006 and in three of the four in 2005. In addition, Washington made the playoffs as a Wild Card team this year after finishing last in the NFC East in 2006.
So, obviously, it's not terribly surprising to see new teams in the playoffs each season. In the six seasons since the league's realignment in 2002, there have been an average of six teams a year in the playoffs that weren't in the postseason field the year before.
The league hit that number on the head this year, as the Bucs were joined by Green Bay, Jacksonville, Pittsburgh, Tennessee and Washington as "newcomers."
In 2006, there were seven teams in the postseason that had been idle the previous January. There were seven such teams in 2005, as well, and the peak came in 2003, when eight new teams made the playoffs.
Still, even though that turnover continued apace this year, the league did end up with many of the league's consistently big winners of this decade in the 2007 field. All of the Super Bowl winners in the aforementioned six-year span since realignment – Tampa Bay, Indianapolis, New England and Pittsburgh – are back in the hunt this January.
Additional Thoughts from Coach Gruden
When asked about the stunning rise of defensive end Greg White from Arena Football League player to the Buccaneers' sack leader in 2007, Gruden called it a "great story." But contemplating White's humble roots reminded Gruden that the Bucs' roster is peppered with quite a few players who are forging careers beyond what many scouts may have expected.
Gruden touched on that subject and several others after practice on Thursday.
On guys coming from out of nowhere to be good NFL players: "Garcia's another classic example. Our left tackle [Donald Penn] wasn't drafted; Earnest Graham was not drafted; Ryan Nece was not drafted. We've got a number of guys playing critical roles on this team that were a bit obscure. Jovan Haye is another guy we found on Cleveland's practice squad. We're the No-Names, man. But we love these guys. We're really proud of them, and it's a credit to them and to our scouting department, certainly."
On if Ahmad Bradshaw is a good change-of-pace back for the Giants: "I don't know if he's a change-of-pace back or if he's the pace-setter. He is a tone-setter for their offensive football team. He gives their play-action passing game a lot of sting. The more we study the tape, the more we see one heck of a football player."
On Jeff Garcia's skill set: "Well, I think his skills are obvious. We've made so many adjustments along the way with the injuries that we've had – it's a real credit to him. I do believe he's 100%, close to 100% now. He's as capable of playing in any offense. He played in 12-man football in Canada, he's played in a number of different systems in the last four or five years and I think anything that you ask him to do he can do."
On why the Giants have been so good on the road: "It's a good team, man. They were in the playoffs last year. They're a good football team. They're well-rounded and Tom Coughlin is a great coach. He's a winner and he brings out the best in football teams. Their team will be prepared to play."
On if that shows fortitude on the Giants' part: "Yeah, that's a characteristic of a good football team. They have guys like [Michael] Strahan that are leaders on that football team – [Antonio] Pierce. They've overcome a negative turnover ratio, which is a tremendous feat. That says a lot about the character on their team."
On if he thought in training camp that the Bucs' defense could play this well this year: "Well, in training camp we had a completely different team than we have now. We're just getting to know each other again at this point. But defensively we have seen some guys blossom. Gaines Adams is what we thought he was. Greg White's a little bit more than we thought he could be. Barrett Ruud has really asserted himself as a first-year starter. Tanard Jackson has cemented himself as a heck of a safety in our scheme here. We knew we had the capability of being a very good defense, and we're going to have to be to win this game."
On Eli Manning: "There's a guy that has taken the Giants to the playoffs now three times. You talk about a guy that's had to respond to a lot of things. They lost Tiki Barber; he loses Jeremy Shockey; they lost their left tackle, Luke Petitgout – he came here. But he's hung in there, he's battled. He's a winner. He won at Ole Miss; I don't think they've won a lot since he left. The guy's a winner and a great talent and we're looking forward to competing with him."
On if the Bucs have flown under the radar: "Oh, I don't know. We've got the best facility in the league. We've got no state income tax. We've got a lot going for us, man."
On if the Giants' blitzing offers a chance to make some big plays on offense: "Yeah. It's a credit to Coach Spags [Steve Spagnuolo], the defensive coordinator – a lot of the sacks that they get they do it on sheer power and talent, but a lot of the sacks they get they create tremendous confusion with their blitz package. They've got seven or eight or nine or 10 guys with sacks. Corners have sacks, linebackers have sacks, safety men have sacks. They've got a lot of sacks, I'll tell you that."