When Demar Dotson went down with a knee injury near the end of the first half of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 2015 preseason opener, he thought it might prove to be his last play of the season. As such, he's received mostly good news since that Saturday night in Minnesota.
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"It was tough, but I really thought it was going to be worse than what it was," said Dotson after Thursday's training camp practice, leaning on a pair of rather long crutches to support his 6-9 frame. "But I'm a guy that's strong in faith, so whatever would have happened, I would have been okay. It's just good news to me that it's not a whole-season deal. I get a chance to come back out here and see what happens."
What Dotson was happy to escape was a tear of the anterior cruciate ligament, or ACL, in his injured right knee. That would have indeed ended his season before it really started, just as a torn ACL did for former Pro Bowl guard Davin Joseph during the 2012 preseason. There has been no official diagnosis or prognosis released by the team, but Dotson seems to be targeting a return some time during the first half of the regular season, perhaps by early October.
"I'm doing better," he said. "It's not an ACL tear; that's good news. I was afraid of that. But a lot of people have prayed and I appreciate everybody's prayers. That's good news, and hopefully I get a chance to come back out here within six weeks or so. That's the plan, and I'll be rehabbing like crazy so I can come back here and finish the season."
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Because he cannot yet put much weight on his injured leg, Dotson's rehab work during this first week has mostly involved ice and leg lifts, but he expects to start more rigorous work next week. The Bucs' training department includes a hydrotherapy room complete with a six-foot pool with a treadmill at the bottom, the perfect tool for knee recovery.
Meanwhile, the Buccaneers are moving forward with their attempt to replace Dotson, quietly one of the NFL's most effective right tackles over the past three seasons, during his absence. That included the recent signing of eighth-year veteran Gosder Cherilus, who has started 100 NFL games in his career. Dotson is ready to give his new teammate whatever help he needs but thinks Cherilus has the physical and mental tools to get up to speed quickly in the Buccaneers' offense.
"He's working so hard," said Dotson of Cherilus. "He's meeting every morning with the assistant O-Line coach. He's putting the time in, he's putting the effort in. He's a pro. He's been around for a long time – I think it's like his eighth year – so he's going to do what it takes to get himself prepared to go out there and play at a high level. He's doing everything that he's got to do, and I think Gosder's going to be okay."
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When Dotson does return to action, the Buccaneers believe they will be deeper at the critical offensive tackle position than they have been in some time. In addition to veterans Dotson and Cherilus, who signed a two-year contract, the team also drafted tackle Donovan Smith in May and tackle Kevin Pamphile a year ago. Smith and Pamphile are battling for the starting left tackle job, though Pamphile hasn't practice this week due to a triceps injury. Pamphile started the preseason opener in Minnesota on Saturday.
"I'm feeling a lot better about [the tackle position]," said Head Coach Lovie Smith. "If we are dressing 46 or whatever, we want to be able to feel good about all of them playing and us not dropping off. We liked our tackle position before when everybody was healthy and to add a player like that has to strengthen our club. That's the case. We will always continue to look for players. If we see someone that we think is an upgrade we will go with it. [Cherilus] is an upgrade."
Additional notes from Thursday's practice:
- Seven different members of the Buccaneers' 2002 Super Bowl championship team were on hand at Buc headquarters on Thursday, and six of the seven were there during practice.
Martin Gramatica scored 12 points in the Buccaneers' Super Bowl victory over the Raiders in 2003.
Kicker Martin Gramatica was at Thursday's practice signing autographs as part of the team's annual Military Day at training camp. The other six visitors were all members of the legendary defense that led that 2002 squad to the franchise's first NFL title: Ronde Barber, Anthony McFarland, Shelton Quarles, Simeon Rice, Warren Sapp and Dwight Smith.
It actually was not a planned reunion. Barber and McFarland attended practice as part of their current roles in the media, and Quarles, of course, has an office at One Buccaneer Place as the team's director of football operations. Rice came by later in part to promote the release of his new movie, Unsullied. Rice, directed, co-wrote and co-produced the film, which was shot in Florida and is based on a true story.
The best photos of cornerback Ronde Barber.
Barber, Quarles, Rice, Sapp and Smith all started Super Bowl XXXVII, Smith as the extra defensive back in a nickel package. McFarland was a starter on the Bucs' defense for the first half of the season before suffering a season-ending injury. The well-timed visit to practice by Sapp and Smith allowed a good portion of the number-one ranked defense of 2002 to reminisce about their finest days.
"There's no other people you can really relive the heyday stories with," said Smith, who set a Super Bowl record with two interception returns for touchdowns." And it's a lot better when you see guys doing well. That's the main key. You hear all these horror stories about guys and what the NFL can do to them, so to see guys doing well is the best part about it."
The best photos of defensive tackle Warren Sapp.
Smith played four seasons for the Buccaneers (2001-04) and another four in New Orleans, Minnesota and Detroit. He still lives in the Tampa Bay area, where he's far from alone in vividly remembering the events of January 26, 2003. Reuniting with some of his '02 teammates gave him a chance to recall some of the other fond moments from those four seasons, and even to learn a new thing or two.
"When you play the game as we played it, you never lose the great memories, the bad memories, any memories," he said. "They're all going to stick with you. And these guys saw me when I was younger and maybe saw some things that I didn't see, things that maybe I was doing well. You can go back and talk to these guys now and know they'll tell you the truth about what was going on then. A true friend is someone who tells you what you need to hear, not what you want to hear."
The best photos of kicker Martin Gramatica.
Smith's first pick-six in Super Bowl XXXVII came midway through the third quarter and completed a run of 34 unanswered points that effectively put the game away. His second was icing on the cake, scored with just two seconds left in the contest. Safety Dexter Jackson, who had two momentum-changing interceptions in the first half, was named the Super Bowl MVP but Smith walked away with a record that might never be broken.
At least, Smith doesn't think it will fall unless some future NFL quarterback stubbornly decides to test the wrong guy too many times.
"When I was at practice today, I was thinking that I should be more in tune with the Super Bowl to see if anybody can break that record," said Smith, laughing. "I've always said I'd have to hunt the quarterback down if he throws three interceptions for touchdowns to the same guy. I can't see that happening. After one or two, I'd be saying, 'Leave that guy alone! Come on, man!'"
- There were more than 1,000 additional special guests at Thursday's practice, thanks to the aforementioned Military Day activities. That group included 50 patients and staff from James A. Haley Veterans' Hospital, as well as senior leadership from MacDill Air Force Base including Col. Randal L. Bright, Commander, 927th Air Refueling Wing; Col. Dennis L. Seymour, Commander, 927th Mission Support Group; and Lt. Col. Adam J. McLean, Commander, 63rd Air Refueling Squadron.
Vincent Jackson has won the Salute to Service Award presented by USAA.
After stretching to start practice, Buccaneer players stood on the sideline for the playing of the national anthem. A group of visitors from the veterans' hospital, some with missing limbs, presented the colors, a sight that was especially moving to wide receiver Louis Murphy.
"It puts everything in perspective, especially when you saw the guys come out today when we did the national anthem," said Murphy, whose father, Louis, Sr., was a U.S. Marine for 10 years. "Some guys lost their legs. I'm a fan of those guys, for them putting their lives on the line for us every day.
"It just means a lot [to honor] all the guys and women that serve our country, that give us our everyday life."
The Bucs presented the Schwarzkopf Military Family of the Year Award to families from each branch of military who showed integrity, courage, & commitment before self & sharing in the sacrifices of service to our country.
The Buccaneers find ways throughout the calendar year to support local members of the U.S. military, often working with USO Central Florida. A military "Hero of the Game" is recognized at each home game, and guests are invited into the Salute to Service Suite throughout the season as well.
"Being in Tampa, you know where they are and know what they do for us," said Lovie Smith, referring to the nearby MacDill Air Force Base. "Whenever we can says thanks and just let them come out, enjoy – they protect us always and now we get a chance to entertain them. We look forward to that though. We take the national anthem seriously, when we stand at attention to start games. We are trying to practice everything that we are going to go through throughout the course of a year. It was good to have them out there and hopefully they enjoyed it. It seemed like they did."