S Will Allen returned to practice on Wednesday as did fellow second-year defender LB Marquis Cooper
If the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are in for another week of watching and waiting with their kicker, at least this week got off to a better start than the last one.
Kicker Matt Bryant is considered questionable for Sunday's game at Carolina, but he did kick "a little bit" in practice on Wednesday, according to Head Coach Jon Gruden, and he may stretch it out a bit more on Thursday. That was Bryant's first action since the Chicago game on November 27 in which the third-year kicker strained his right hamstring. Bryant did not practice at all last week and was eventually deactivated for last Sunday's game in Baton Rouge.
Todd France, signed off the practice squad on Saturday, handled the kicking duties in the Bucs' 10-3 win over the Saints, making one of two field goals (the other was blocked) and his only extra-point attempt. France remains on the roster and could get the call again this Sunday, but the Bucs will go back to Bryant when he is healthy. That will be true even if the weather conditions are rough in Charlotte, as there is some indication they may be.
"He's getting better, but how much better we'll find out here in the coming days," said Gruden. "If he's cleared to kick, he'll kick. If he's not, he won't. I'm not going to let the weather determine anything. I'm going to let the trainers diagnose him with our doctors, and if he's well enough to kick he'll kick."
Either way, the Bucs will head into Sunday's game against the division leading Panthers with a kicker in whom they have confidence. The Bucs' last trip to Charlotte was actually the final game of Martin Gramatica's accomplished career in Tampa. Gramatica had struggled for most of the 2003-04 seasons, and his three missed field goals in that 21-14 loss prompted the Bucs to look elsewhere for a kicker.
That search turned up both Bryant and France, two young kickers who performed well in training camp this past summer. Bryant won the job and was outstanding in 2005 before hurting his hamstring, making 15 of 18 field goal tries. France hooked up with the Philadelphia Eagles for three games and made six of seven field goal tries before the return of David Akers. That and France's perfect preseason for the Buccaneers gives the team a comfort zone in Bryant's replacement.
And that's good, because placekicking has played an enormous part in all three of the Bucs-Panthers games played in Charlotte since the two teams joined the NFC South in 2002. In '02, Gramatica made field goals of 32, 52, 53 and 47 yards in a comeback, 12-9 win for Tampa Bay, the last three coming in the fourth quarter and the final one occurring with five seconds left.
In '03, the Panthers' John Kasay made field goals of 48 and 45 yards en route to a 27-24 win for the home team. The Bucs came back with a 10-point rally in the fourth quarter to take a 24-20 lead, but Kasay's long kicks provided the margin of victory after Jake Delhomme drove Carolina for the winning touchdown. And, obviously, Gramatica's misses last season were dramatic in a seven-point loss at Bank of America Stadium.
The Panthers' relative dominance in the last two games of the series, both in Tampa and both Carolina wins by at least 17 points, may have obscured how close this series has been since its NFC South inception. Good kicking had a lot to do with that in 2002 and 2003, but it extends well beyond that.
"I don't know what it is," said cornerback Brian Kelly. "This division is very tight. There are a lot of good players, a lot of good teams, a lot of good schemes, a lot of good coaches…and that adds up to close games.
"We definitely match up against each other well. I guess it's just the familiarity. They've kept a lot of their players over the years, we've kept a lot of our players over the years. A lot of that has to do with it, too."
There is some new blood to the rivalry, though, including (potentially) Bryant. The Panthers have added cornerback Ken Lucas and safety Thomas Davis to their defense; the Bucs can counter with Cadillac Williams and Chris Simms on offense. And, fortunately, it appears as if Tampa Bay's roster will be relatively healthy heading into the game.
In addition to Bryant, the Bucs' official injury report lists only two players: safety Will Allen and linebacker Marquis Cooper, both members of the 2004 draft class. Allen has missed three straight games with a knee injury but he is now practicing full-speed and he has been upgraded to probable from his questionable status of last week. Cooper suffered a chest injury against Chicago and missed the New Orleans game, but he also practiced on Wednesday and also is probable on the injury report.
The Panthers, in contrast, have a lengthy official injury report this week, though none of the eight players on the list is worse than questionable. Among the seven Carolina players currently considered questionable to play in Sunday's game, four are starters: defensive ends Julius Peppers and Mike Rucker, linebacker Dan Morgan and guard Tutan Reyes. All three of those defensive stars have ankle ailments while Reyes' injury is to his knee.
However, only one player on the Panthers' list has missed a start recently. Morgan, the starting middle linebacker, has not played in the last two games and has been ably replaced by former Atlanta Falcon Chris Draft. Given the magnitude of the game and the importance of those players, the Bucs will expect to see Peppers and company on the field until told otherwise.
And they'll expect a close game that could come down to placekicking, no matter who is holding down that job for the Buccaneers.
"We've had some close games with them since I've been here," said center John Wade. "Obviously, earlier in the season it wasn't a close game. They beat us and they beat us good. We know what we're going to be facing, we know the environment's going to be a hostile environment. Their team's going to be ready as well and they're fired up."