RB Charlie Garner hasn't been limited in practice after keeping his preseason action to a minimum
Charlie Garner's 2004 preseason consisted of two games, four carries for 20 yards and no receptions.
His reaction: Mission accomplished.
The good news for Garner, who played through a limiting knee injury most of last season in Oakland and thus saw his lowest rushing and receiving numbers in five years, is that he feels perfectly healthy heading into 2004. Primed, pumped and with fresh legs.
"This is the best I have felt in three years," he insisted. "Absolutely. Preseason is the time of season when you want to get your time in, but for me personally, it's basically trying to stay healthy and go into the season feeling the best I possibly can. This year I have done that."
Indeed, the Bucs took different approaches with different players during the preseason, mostly saving wide receiver Joey Galloway's legs, for instance, while getting a long look at such newcomers as Mario Edwards and Bill Schroeder. Michael Clayton, too, played a lot, as the team tried to determine how he would fit into the offense. Galloway looked so promising during offseason workouts that the Bucs were already confident in that commodity.
And Garner? The Bucs really know Garner well.
The former Eagle, 49er and Oakland back has played in Gruden's system twice, in Philadelphia and Oakland. In 2001, Garner thrived in that attack, with 839 rushing yards and 72 receptions. In a similar offense the next year, under Gruden's successor, Bill Callahan, Garner nearly hit 1,000 yards in both categories (962 rushing, 941 receiving).
When he arrived in Tampa, Garner found the offense very familiar, with just some new terminology to get down. He absorbed those changes simply, eased himself back from minor knee surgery and played just enough in August to feel comfortable.
"You want to take your time with me coming back, with my knee and my hamstrings, but at the same time [Gruden] wanted to get me in with the first team to see what I could do," said Garner. "We got a few carries in there and a few timing plays down, but at the same time you just want to be prepared for this first game and that's what we are."
Gruden is fond of point out Garner's numbers over the past five years, and for good reason. Garner racked up 7,812 yards from scrimmage from 1999-2003, sixth-most in the league in that span, ahead of such players as Ahman Green, Tiki Barber, Eddie George and Stephen Davis. And while Marshall Faulk (9,363) has a clear lead on that list, Garner is not far from the second-place spot, held by Curtis Martin (8,294). The Bucs coach seems sure that he is going to get that same sort of production out of Garner in Tampa.
Galloway believes it, too, and expects to see his own benefits from that production.
"I think everyone has seen what Charlie (Garner) does out of the backfield and running the ball," said the former Cowboy and Seahawk receiver. "He is a key component to the offense. He brings a lot of different things. He opens up some things and if we can get him going, that will open up everything in the passing game."
Garner has not been limited in practice this week, and is sure to be a vital part of the Bucs' attack in Washington, particularly with fellow tailback Michael Pittman serving a suspension for three games. If the results on the practice field are a good indication, the Bucs may have found their way through a maze of minor injuries to arrive at a good running attack just in time for the regular season.
"I think we look pretty solid," said Garner. "I think we are communicating well. Tight ends and the offensive line, as well as the running back and the fullbacks. We are communicating, getting our blocking procedures and getting our blocking assignments down. It's going to be a great game."
Garner doesn't know how many touches he'll get in all – he guesses 18 or 20, with Mike Alstott and Jamel White working into the mix – but he's not concerned about those numbers. He claims to be relishing the first hard hit he takes on Sunday against the Redskins.
You see, even if Garner was rather transparently unimpressed with the idea of preseason playing time, he's more than excited for the real thing. Primed, pumped and with fresh legs.
"I'm anxious," he said. "I'm looking forward to this season. Last year was difficult for me. This being a homecoming for me, going home the first game, I'm just looking forward to getting this season off great."