Josh Freeman has started 36 consecutive games for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and though he's only 23 years old, that's the third-longest current streak on the team at the moment. It's also the longest streak of starts by a Buccaneer quarterback since Trent Dilfer opened 70 games in a row from 1995-99.
However, Freeman's streak could be in jeopardy this week as the Buccaneers prepare to take on the Carolina Panthers in Sunday's Throwback Game due to a right shoulder injury he suffered this past weekend against the Tennessee Titans. Coincidentally, Freeman's streak began with the first-ever Buccaneers Throwback Game, a 2009 win over the Green Bay Packers in the rookie's first career start.
Freeman participated in the early portion of Wednesday's practice but did not make any throws, as fourth-year man Josh Johnson took over the first-team offense. Head Coach Raheem Morris said that Freeman's throwing shoulder was "sore" and that it was an organizational decision to limit his work during the week's first practice.
"Right now, he's day-to-day," said Morris. "We were hoping he would be able to go full-go today, and he was limited. We'll have an opportunity to hopefully evaluate him tomorrow and the next day after that, get him going to see if he can get a chance to play."
Morris explained that Freeman suffered the injury on the final Buccaneers offensive play of the team's 23-17 loss in Nashville, an attempted quarterback sneak on fourth-and-one in the game's final minute. On a rainy day that featured nine turnovers, Freeman had the snap go through his hands and land on the ground, and he was wrapped up by several defenders immediately after picking it back up.
"I'm not sure who jumped on top of him but it was going down in the scrum, trying to get the ball back," said Morris. "And that's the shame of it – executing the most simple play of football, the quarterback-center exchange. We didn't execute it and we got a quarterback hurt, potentially."
The Buccaneers will re-evaluate Freeman's injury and availability each day this week, but they likely won't make a decision on whether he will play against the Panthers until the weekend. Freeman could return to the practice field on Thursday or Friday, but even if he does not he would still have a chance to suit up on Sunday.
"Josh is one of those guys that would go all the way up to Saturday," said Morris. "He'll go all the way up to Saturday and potentially even Sunday. He's one of those guys that's going to get all the mental reps, the mental capacity, all those types of things. And if he can throw it, then he can throw it. And if he can't, then he can't. If he can go out and execute the game plan and give us the best chance to win, then he'll play."
Freeman previously spent several midseason weeks on the Bucs' injury report with an injury to his right thumb. He's also thrown 16 interceptions in 2011 after being picked off just six times in 2010, and of course the Bucs' record, now at 4-7, will not match last year's mark of 6-10. If his starts streak is interrupted on Sunday, that would be another hurdle for him to overcome during a season that has not been as satisfying for the entire team as had been hoped. However, Morris thinks his young franchise quarterback can use it all to his advantage in the long run.
"All those things are the adversity you deal with," said the coach. "You've got to learn through adversity and hopefully that's what he's doing right now. He's 23 years old and he has the ability to grow up right now, grow up really fast, learn these mistakes that we made in these first couple of games. We're fortunate enough right now that we're in position to have five more games, one at a time, one snap at a time, to go out there and do our jobs and hopefully make [the adversity] disappear."
Freeman isn't the only Buccaneer starter who is ailing this week, and the team's defensive line has been bit particularly hard by the injury bug. In fact, all four of the team's current D-Line starters were on the injury report on Wednesday, and that doesn't include former starting defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, who is already on injured reserve.
Three of those four did not practice on Wednesday: left end Michael Bennett (groin), right end Adrian Clayborn (back) and defensive tackle Brian Price (ankle). Defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth is also on the report with a knee ailment but practiced fully to start the week.
Bennett has already missed one game with his current groin injury but he's doing his best to return as soon as possible.
"He's getting better fast," said Morris. "He's one of those guys that's been knocking on my door, trying to be active and all those things. So we'll see. He's another guy that's going to have to work out for us, get out there on the practice field a little bit. These guys don't like to be out and they sometimes try to come back too fast. Sometimes they hurt you when you let them do that, so you've got to watch them and be careful. So we'll check that out."
Price suffered an injury to his right ankle during the Tennessee game on Sunday and did not return to action. His situation is similar to that of Freeman.
"Brian Price was out today," said Morris. "Hopefully we have a chance to see him. He's another day-to-day type guy. Right now, obviously you see him in walking boot, one of our little straps we use for those types of guys. We'll see where he is tomorrow, we'll get a chance to see where he is on Friday and Saturday and see if he has an opportunity to play."
Morris was not questioned about Clayborn's injury on Wednesday but the rookie appeared on the injury report for the first time this year. He has started all 11 games at right defensive end and is currently the team leader with 5.0 sacks.
Three other Buccaneers were held out of practice on Wednesday, as well: linebacker Adam Hayward (foot), linebacker Dekoda Watson (groin) and tight end Kellen Winslow (not injury related). Winslow usually practices on Thursday after sitting out the week's first practice.
Pirates at Practice
The jerseys were still the same – white for offense, red for defense – but the socks and shoes featured a lot more orange than usual and there wasn't a metallic pewter helmet in sight.
The week of practice before the Buccaneers' annual Throwback Game is always interesting, at least from a sartorial standpoint. In order to get in the spirit of Sunday's game, in which the team will don orange-and-white uniforms based on the original 1976 scheme, the Bucs always break out their former pirate logo and bring him to practice.
Tampa Bay's first two Throwback Games, in 2009 and 2010, proved wildly popular with both the fans and the players. Though they might not choose the orange and white over their current uniforms for the long run, most of the players enjoy the opportunity to try something new and evoke an earlier era in franchise history.
"It's just a change of pace, really," said guard Davin Joseph. "The fans really love it. We love it and it's something we've come to look forward to on a yearly basis. It's pretty fun."
The players arrived at work on Wednesday to find their lockers laden with white helmets featuring the former logo as well as other orange accessories. The sight provided a little boost to a locker room that could use one for the season's final stretch.
"We kind of get a buzz when we see these uniforms around," said defensive tackle Roy Miller. "It's exciting for us. It was our first win a couple years ago when we wore these uniforms, and it's just exciting. All the history and everything behind it…it's exciting to be able to take this uniform out there knowing that it's been our good luck charm."
Many of the Buccaneers remember the aforementioned first start for Freeman in 2009, when the rookie led them to a 38-28 victory over the Green Bay Packers. That was the first return of the orange uniforms, and they came back again last December when the Buccaneers faced the Atlanta Falcons, who would go on to post an NFC-best 13-3 record in 2010. Tampa Bay couldn't quite hold on to a win in that game, losing 28-24 to a fourth-quarter Falcon comeback, but it was an inspired effort. That's why veterans such as Miller believe the orange uniforms can bring them a little luck again.
However, even the rookies with no real connection to the orange uniforms are getting a kick out of the week-long change.
"I'm excited," said linebacker Mason Foster. "The uniform and helmets look nice. I've seen them on TV before and probably played with them on Madden a few times so I'm excited to wear them."
Miller Returns to Practice Squad
Each team in the NFL is allowed to supplement its 53-man active roster with an eight-man practice squad, which allows for the development of young players and more rotation options on the practice field.
Those units are first formed in the days following the final roster cuts just before the start of the regular season, but they generally remain in flux throughout the season. While the occasional player remains on the practice squad for all 17 weeks – wide receiver Ed Gant is a good example for the Bucs this season – many others move on or are eventually promoted to the 53-man roster. Teams frequently tweak their practice squads in order to adjust to injuries on the active roster and keep their practice-field numbers strong at every position.
On Wednesday, the Bucs tweaked their practice squad once again, re-signing defensive tackle Swanson Miller, who had previously spent Weeks Nine and 10 with the team. To make room for Miller's return, the team released fullback Matt Clapp, who had been on the practice squad since Week Eight.
Miller's return may have been related to Price's ankle injury. With the defensive line short on healthy players this week, Miller can definitely help spread out the reps in practice.
Miller (6-4, 310) originally signed with the Cleveland Browns as an undrafted free agent out of Oklahoma State in April of 2010. He was waived during the final roster cuts that September but eventually signed with the New Orleans Saints' practice squad in December. The Saints re-signed Miller for the 2011 season in January and he once again ended up on the team's practice squad to start this season. He was waived and re-signed several times during September and October, most recently leaving the Saints on October 26.
Miller played two seasons at Oklahoma State after transferring from Butler County (KS) Community College. He appeared in 26 games with the Cowboys and recorded 41 tackles, three sacks, six tackles for loss, two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and two passes defensed. Most of his statistics, including all three of his sacks, were racked up during a strong senior season, during which he helped hold OSU opponents to 3.0 yards per rush. Born in Gainesville, the 25-year-old Miller played his prep football at Santa Fe High School in Alachua, Florida.