Defensive second-teamers David Gibson (left) and Nate Webster (right) didn't want to make it easy for RB Warrick Dunn
An old question reared its ugly head at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' afternoon practice on Thursday. Thousands of people have sought the answer this fall, at Bucs games and throughout the NFL.
"Who let the dogs out?"
That's what Dexter Jackson wanted to know during team drills at about 3:30 p.m. on Thursday. Jackson, the Bucs' backup free safety, had just helped the defensive 'look' team thwart a play by the starting offense and was looking for a way to keep his teammates fired up. The omnipresent stadium song of 2000 sprung to his lips. His teammates answered immediately, as if it was rehearsed: "Woof…woof, woof!"
Jackson and the rest of his squad were just having a little fun, of course, and since the playfulness was mixed in with a healthy dose of aggressive and attentive play, Head Coach Tony Dungy didn't mind a bit. In fact, he has seen his team get in this type of mood before and enjoyed the final results.
"Some of our defensive guys early in the practice – Nate Webster, Dexter Jackson, David Gibson – kind of got it going," said Dungy. "That always picks up the tempo. So I thought it was good work for us. Usually when the look squads gets excited, that's what makes practice good. We had it last week and we had it again today."
Jackson was all over the field during team and seven-on-seven drills, taking turns with both the first and second-team units. Emulating Atlanta's Ronnie Bradford when he was on the scout team, Jackson made two interceptions, both on very acrobatic catches. On the second, he 'returned' it most of the way back upfield, even drawing an animated block from practice squad rookie Anthony Midget.
Webster also appeared to be a force in run support and nickel back Brian Kelly had a pick of his own. While the scout team's success sometimes comes at the expense of the team's starting offense, it's encouraging to see such strong play from the younger players like those three that Tampa Bay is trying to get onto the field more and more.
"I think our scout team 'D' got after our offense a little bit, and that carries over," said CB Ronde Barber. "It was fun. That's what practice is supposed to be like. You're supposed to have fun, and hopefully that will propel us to some energy in the game."
Dungy believes the high-energy practice will translate into a better grasp of what the team is trying to accomplish. "I think the satisfaction is that it makes everyone work hard," he said. "When you work hard, you have good practices and it's going to make it that much easier in the game."
Dungy was pleased not only with the attitude of his roster on Thursday but also with its availability. Only a couple players – LB Shelton Quarles, DT Warren Sapp – failed to suit up, despite an injury report that stretches nine players long.
Most encouraging was the play of CB Donnie Abraham, who is trying to shake off a hip strain suffered in the Bucs' win over Minnesota on Sunday.
"Donnie did some work, which is good to see," said Dungy. "Steve White (ankle) and (Anthony) McFarland (tricep) hung in there. Warren Sapp (knee), we hope to get back tomorrow. I think we're sitting in pretty good shape.
"Warren is doing better. He doesn't have a lot of pain, he's just got some fluid in there. Hopefully, he'll make that improvement over the next 48 hours that we need."
Dungy saved most of his concern for Quarles, who has missed most of the last two games due to a groin injury. Quarles sat out the October 19 game against Detroit but returned to action versus the Vikings. However, he left the game at halftime when the injury was aggravated.
"He's probably the most questionable of everyone," agreed Dungy, "but, again, we'll see tomorrow how he goes."
Barber isn't on that lengthy injury report, but he is prominently featured on another prominent list of players.
The NFL made available the numbers from the early part of its online balloting for the 2001 Pro Bowl, and there are a number of Buccaneers doing extremely well in the voting. Among them is Barber, who trails only Washington's Champ Bailey in the voting. Since the league takes two cornerback starters from each conference, that is a good place for Barber to find himself. The Giants' Jason Sehorn, the Redskins' Deion Sanders and Tampa Bay's Donnie Abraham round out the top five.
Barber wasn't ready to put too much stock in those numbers.
"It's a little early," he said. "If I keep running second, I'll be happy. I've got to score some more touchdowns for you guys, though."
He has two already this season, one each on a fumble and interception return. It is those type of big plays, including 5.5 sacks, that have launched Barber's apparently healthy national profile. Many of his teammates are enjoying the same notoriety.
FB Mike Alstott is dominating his position, with more than four times the number of the player in second place, Washington's Larry Centers. Similarly DT Warren Sapp leads the voting in his category with more than the second and third-place players (John Randle and Dana Stubblefield) combined. K Martin Gramatica could be a breakthrough player like Barber, as he currently is running a very close second to Minnesota's Gary Anderson and has an enormous lead over the kicker in third place, Detroit's Jason Hanson.
Other Buccaneers not just leading at their positions but enjoying sizeable amounts of breathing room are SS John Lynch, OLB Derrick Brooks and C Jeff Christy. G Randall McDaniel leads at his position but has close pursuers in the Rams' Adam Timmerman and the Cowboys' Larry Allen.
Online balloting is part of the fans' portion of the Pro Bowl selection process, which accounts for one third of the voting. NFL players and their coaches comprise the other two thirds of the process.