Head Coach Tony Dungy thinks temperate weather, like the day that graced Tampa on Friday, helps his team practice well late in the season
For much of October, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Florida State duo of linebacker Derrick Brooks and RB Warrick Dunn sat out Wednesday and Thursday practices, then showed just enough on Friday afternoon to gain clearance to play on Sunday.
That pattern has now been reversed. As the similarly sprained feet of Brooks (left) and Dunn (right) have begun to heal more completely, the two key contributors have returned to practicing with the team in the middle of the week, when the game plan is installed. Friday is mostly a review day, and the Bucs have chosen to give their two Seminole stars that day off each of the past two weeks.
And so it was that Brooks and Dunn watched the rest of the team in action as the work week came to a close Friday, without it being considered a setback. Both have been cleared to play against Chicago on Sunday.
"That was kind of the plan and it's what we did last week, too," said Head Coach Tony Dungy. "They had two really good days of practice in and now they have 48 hours to rest those feet up."
Earlier in the week, Buccaneers.com reported that both Brooks and Dunn are closer to full strength this week than they have been since September, according to both the players and the team's training staff.
However, the Bucs also held out WR Jacquez Green on Friday, a development that probably should be considered a setback. Green has missed the last three games with an abdominal strain but appeared to be rounding back into playing form when the practice week began. He has now been downgraded to questionable and may miss his fourth consecutive game on Sunday.
That's unfortunate for Green, who has had good success against the Bears. In five career games against Chicago, he has hauled in 19 passes for 261 yards and a touchdown.
That was the only negative news on Friday, as the Bucs had 55 players on the field and a pleased coach at the end of practice. Tampa Bay has put together one of its best workout weeks of the season in preparation for what may be a season-turning matchup with the Bears.
"Everybody else went through and did well," said Dungy. "Nate Webster (bruised ribs) actually did pretty well today. We were concerned about how that was going to be, but he looked like he got through it okay."
A few good practices will not mean much if the Bucs are upended by the Bears, but they may signal the onset of another strong stretch run for Tampa Bay. Since Dungy took over the reins for the 1996 season, his Buccaneers have won at over a 68% clip in the regular season after the end of October, including their one win and one loss this month. In November, in particular, the Bucs are 17-7 and have won eight of their last 10.
Tampa Bay doesn't make any drastic change after the Halloween decorations come down. Quite the contrary, in fact. According to Dungy, the prime late-season weather in Florida – Friday may have been the most pleasant day of the year in Tampa – allows the Bucs to continue doing things the same way throughout the campaign.
"We try to keep the same routine, and I think that has been good for us," he said. "We get good weather and we're able to continue to work on our fundamentals and continue to improve. Just like now, it seems like we're getting healthier. We've got more guys practicing and our practices, for some reason, are better during the second half of the year."
The one concession Dungy makes to the long season is the dangling of the Monday-off carrot in front of his players. Like last week, the Bucs have been promised an extra off day on Monday next week if they are able to defeat Chicago. That plan may be in effect for the remainder of the season.
"We've got the incentive program working," said Dungy with a laugh. "When you get to the must-win games you have to pull out all the stops.
"Halfway through, we try to make Monday optional for lifting so they don't have to get up so early in the morning. They can rest and get an extra half of a day off, and I think that does help them in the second half of the year."
Shortly after the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, a mild debate was raised in the sportswriting community over the prevalence of war metaphors in sports descriptions. Was it minimizing to the seriousness of war to continue to use such football phrases as 'bombs,' 'in the trenches,' 'ground attacks,' 'aerial assaults' and the like?
The sports lexicon does not seem to be changing, however, and it's interesting to note that, on Thursday, a prominent military official took it in the other direction.
At a press briefing on Thursday, Tampa-based Army General Tommy R. Franks spoke about the recent large gains in Afghanistan by anti-Taliban forces. Noting that this positive news was coming shortly on the heels of criticism over various small setbacks, Franks likened the armed forces' overall efforts to a complete NFL campaign, specifically mentioning the Buccaneers.
Said Franks: "I will tell you that this is like the National Football League, and if we were to go through this worrying about each time that a linebacker takes a shot for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, we'd get little else done."
Franks' field of expertise may be a much more serious concern than the Buccaneers' season, but his words sounded similar to Dungy's general reactions to player injuries. When one player goes down, Dungy is wont to say, the next player has to step up. The season must continue without dwelling on such a setback.
The Bucs' coach was informed of Franks' comments on Friday afternoon after practice and was taken by surprise.
"I will take that as a high, high, high compliment," said Dungy. "No question about it, I'm flattered."
So, should we feel comfortable expressing football in war terms? It would seem to be an enormous stretch to compare the Bucs upcoming attempt to beat the Bears with the United States' pursuit of the Taliban.
"I don't think he meant it that way, but he was trying to make a point and I'm flattered he used us," said Dungy.
Saturday's episode of "NFL Under the Helmet" on FOX-TV will include a highlight compilation for Buccaneers wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson.
"NFL Under the Helmet" airs on FOX-TV on Saturdays at 12:00 p.m. ET. The teen-driven magazine show, produced by NFL Films and hosted by Ron Pitts and Rebecca Grant, features the best of the NFL and the world of contemporary music.
In Johnson's case, the piece will blend his impressive on-field work with the music of P. Diddy. The musician's recent hit, "Bad Boy for Life," will accompany a look at Johnson's career with the Bucs and New York Jets.
Other features during the show will focus on Philadelphia RB Duce Staley, Arizona WR David Boston, Miami DE Jason Taylor and Baltimore Head Coach Brian Billick.