Two months after wondering if his season was over before it started, James Cannida is ready to assume a starting role
The first three years of James Cannida's NFL career had basically been one slow, steady rise, so maybe it was time for a few peaks and valleys.
Cannida will reach the summit of his pro career, to this point, on Sunday in Green Bay when he makes his first NFL start at nose tackle for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He will be thrust into this critical position against the Packers' strong running game just two months after what may have been the lowest moment of his NFL days.
How times have changed for the unassuming former sixth-round pick out of Nevada-Reno.
If you knew much of Cannida before 2001, it was to be told that he was an excellent backup to the team's high-profile starting tackles, first Warren Sapp and Brad Culpepper, then Sapp and Anthony McFarland. Cannida was a bit of a surprise roster addition as a rookie in 1998, then a well-kept but improving secret in 1999 and finally a valued substitute in 2000. There were no missteps in that time span and no giant leaps forward, just the development of a very good player in an important but unsung role.
This year he's making headlines, not all of which he has enjoyed. During the team's preseason finale in Atlanta on August 31, Cannida suffered a sprained medial collateral ligament (MCL) in his left knee, an injury that would keep him sidelined for six weeks. Suddenly, this player that was perhaps taken by granted (though not inside team headquarters), was throwing the Bucs' roster-cut decisions into turmoil. Without Cannida, weren't the Bucs woefully thin in the middle of the trenches?
"My main thing was to get healthy and come back and contribute just as fast as I could," said Cannida. "I wanted to do a lot right away."
The Bucs survived thanks to Chartric Darby and good health to McFarland and Sapp, and Cannida returned to game action on October 21 against the Steelers. As it turned out, that was just in the nick of time.
"The Pittsburgh game, I was a little sore and I didn't know how I was going to feel, but at the same time, the coach told me to come back strong and we'll work you in as soon as you get back," he said. "I think it was a good job by Rod working me in slowly, then last week I got a lot more playing time."
That's because the Bucs' luck ran out, as McFarland went down with his own injury against the Vikings last Sunday. It is a similar ailment to Cannida's, but not as severe, and McFarland is expected to miss two games before hopefully returning against Chicago on November 18. Two months after nervously wondering during a plane ride back from Atlanta if his season was over, Cannida is now on the front line and ready to see the most important action of his career.
"It's a real good opportunity," he said. "It's something that I've been wanting to do for a long time, so I have to take advantage of it. I don't want to squander anything and I don't want the team to lose anything. I just have to go out there and do my part."
The Packers in Lambeau Field may be a tougher task than the Vikings in Tampa, so Cannida and his new starting mates will have to maintain or perhaps step up the intensity level they displayed on Sunday to repeat that performance. However, the defensive squad is not worried about a weak link at nose tackle with Cannida stepping in.
"He's been around here for four years and had playing time before," said DE Steve White, another valuable substitute who may have to start if Marcus Jones (sprained elbow) is unable to play. "He'll go in there and do a great job until Anthony comes back. I think he'll take up the slack and Chuck (Darby) will back him up. But it won't change the game plan much at all. That guy's a good player and he'll be ready to play. He'll perform well for us on Sunday."
Cannida, a mature and quiet man who has had the locker room presence of a long-time veteran since his second season in the league, agrees that he is prepared to contribute as a starter.
"I think I'm pretty ready," he said. "You never know when your opportunities are going to come, so you have to prepare every week for that to happen. You never know when someone might go down. You want the defense to be on the same level as the week before, and the coaches have enough confidence in the reserves on this team that they can step up and be a starter when the time comes. I'm just going to try to do that."
On Wednesday, Cannida said the weight of the new assignment had not him yet, that his perspective remained the same as when he was expecting to sub for 10 or 15 plays a game. Friends have been calling to discuss the good news of his first start, but Cannida has been more interested in maintaining the sense of urgency that the team as a whole displayed against Minnesota.
"We came out and tried to show that last week, and now we have to follow that up," he said. "You don't want to come out with a great performance like that and then slack off. So now, we just have to go out there and do the same thing, but do it with a sense of urgency because we want to put two great games together. We think that's what we need to get things rolling around here."
Is it possible, though, to suddenly experience the more dramatic ups and downs of an NFL season without one's emotions going along for the roller-coaster ride? From Cannida's demeanor in the locker room on Wednesday, perhaps. Check with us again next Monday, though.
"Last night, my phone started ringing," he said. "My mom called and I think she's more excited than I am right now. Getting hurt, not knowing how long you're going to be out, then being out six weeks, coming back and playing a little bit, then the next game a starter gets hurt and you have to fill in ... It will probably dawn on me a little more this afternoon at practice, and right before the game."
There will be no time for peaks and valleys at that point. The Bucs would be more than pleased with the same steady effort Cannida has been providing for the past four years.