For the first time since suffering a hamstring injury in the fifth quarter of the season, Pro Bowl running back Doug Martin as back on the field with a football in his hand on Wednesday.
The NFL's second-leading rusher in 2015 was hurt in the opening period of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Week Two game at Arizona, an injury he subsequently aggravated prior to the team's Week Five Monday night win at Carolina. He did not practice or appear in a game until Wednesday, when he was a limited participant in the team's first bit of on-field preparation for Sunday's game against Chicago.
That much-anticipated action at One Buccaneer Place does not necessarily mean Martin will be running the football at nearby Raymond James Stadium on Sunday, but it's obviously a step in the right direction. Whenever he gets a uniform back on, it will be a welcome return to the Buccaneers, who have seen four tailbacks go down already, two badly enough to land on injured reserve.
"It's great to have him [on the field]," said Head Coach Dirk Koetter. "Any time we get our guys back, it's awesome to have those guys out there."
Last year, Martin ran 288 times for 1,402 yards and caught 33 passes for 271 yards, with a total of seven touchdowns. So far in 2016, he has been limited to 30 touches and the Bucs' rushing attack is averaging just 3.9 yards per carry. With Martin and Charles Sims (now on injured reserve) leading the way in 2015, the Buccaneers averaged 135.1 rushing yards per game and 4.8 yards per carry.
Running back Jacquizz Rodgers, who filled in marvelously for Martin and Sims during a three-game stretch in which he ran for 324 yards, did not practice on Wednesday due to a foot injury that kept him out of last Thursday's Atlanta game. Veteran back Antone Smith was placed on injured reserve earlier this week, so if neither Martin nor Rodgers returns on Sunday, the team will go with a backfield trio of recently-re-signed veteran Mike James and rookies Peyton Barber and Russell Hansbrough.
Both ends of the Buccaneers' prolific passing duo of Jameis Winston and Mike Evans were also on Wednesday's injury report, but both participated fully in practice. Winston suffered a knee injury late in last Thursday's game but hasn't seem particularly concerned about it. Asked on Wednesday, the second-year quarterback said his knee was, "great." Evans is in the concussion protocol but might soon be clear of that process.
"Officially, yes, he is [still in the protocol]," said Koetter. "I believe he might be taking the test later today or tomorrow, so he could possibly come off."
Defensive tackle Clinton McDonald, who hasn't played since suffering a hamstring injury in practice in Week Five, was limited in practice on Wednesday. Center Joe Hawley was also limited due to a knee ailment, while guard Kevin Pamphile and wide receiver Russell Shepard joined Rodgers on the sideline. Pamphile is also in the concussion protocol but clearly not as far along in the process as Evans. Shepard missed last week's game with a hip injury.
The only Bears not to practice on Wednesday were running back Ka'Deem Carey and rookie cornerback Deiondre' Hall, both of whom are listed as reserves on Chicago's depth chart. Starting cornerback Bryce Callahan was back in action in a limited fashion after missing the Bears' previous game with a hamstring injury.
Quite a few banged-up Bears are getting back into the mix after the team's bye week, in fact, if Wednesday's injury report is any indication. The team defeated first-place Minnesota in Week Eight without either of their starting guard, Kyle Long and Josh Sitton, but both were back, if limited, on Wednesday. Defensive tackle Eddie Goldman, who had a very strong season as a rookie in 2015, has been out since Week Three with an ankle injury but could be a very valuable addition for the Bears this weekend.