All signs point towards WR Keyshawn Johnson playing on Sunday, a day on which he could break the team's single-season receptions record
Keyshawn Johnson is listed as probable on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' official injury report, which technically means there's a 75% chance he'll lace on the cleats Sunday against the Lions.
In reality, there's an almost 100% chance that Johnson will put on 75% of his cleats.
The NFC's leading receiver, who is suffering from sprains to his right foot and ankle, did little more at Friday's practice than take some passes from Offensive Assistant Coach Kevin O'Dea and run a few routes by himself on the sideline. Afterward, he modeled his altered right cleat, out of which Head Trainer Todd Toriscelli has cut a piece to relieve pressure on Johnson's injured fifth metatarsal bone. The removed portion of the shoe is then taped over with a pad; Johnson may wear this modified cleat Sunday against the Lions.
Whatever the gear, Johnson made it clear that he would play on Sunday, extending his streak of 84 consecutive games played. The former first overall pick of the 1996 draft has not missed a game since his rookie campaign with the New York Jets. Just this season, Johnson has been on various mid-week injury reports with injuries to his right quad, right hip flexor (two separate occasions), right knee, left ribs and left ankle, but he has managed to suit up for each game. His willingness to take hits over the middle has contributed to this painful but prosperous season.
This particular injury, however, occurred in practice on Wednesday and has kept him off the field for two consecutive days. That was a disturbing trend for the Buccaneers this week, as the injury report grew like a weed, from six players on Wednesday to 11 on Thursday to 12 by Friday morning and 14 by the afternoon.
The latest jump was due to two new injuries sustained during Friday's 90-minute session. WR Reidel Anthony left the field during the practice to get an X-ray examination on his right shin, which was kicked during the action. The X-rays were negative for any serious injury. CB Brian Kelly also was sidelined with a left ankle sprain. Both went on the report as probable.
And that, of course, is the saving grace of the Bucs' two-touchdown injury report: all the players on it but one are considered probable. LB Jeff Gooch is questionable with a hamstring strain.
Head Coach Tony Dungy isn't complaining.
"Reidel Anthony got hit in the shin and we think it's minor," said Dungy. "Other than that, we're doing well. Other than Jeff Gooch, we should be in good shape."
Tight end Dave Moore, who was a concern when the week began because of a hip strain, now appears ready to play after having no trouble practicing Thursday or Friday. That could lead to rookie tight end Mike Roberg, who was just signed to the active roster from the practice squad on Tuesday, joining the eight-man in active list for his first NFL game.
"Right now, it looks like Dave's going to be fine and isn't going to have any ill effects," said Dungy. "It will be a game-time decision, but right now (Roberg will) probably not (play)."
Conversely, the Lions' injury report is less than half as long as the Bucs', but it is clearly more troubling. Linebacker Scott Kowalkowski, one of Detroit's veteran special-teamers, was added on Friday with a hamstring injury and is considered questionable. All seven Lions on the report are marked as questionable or worse, including quarterback Charlie Batch (shoulder) and wide receiver Bert Emanuel (knee), who have already been ruled out.
Punter John Jett is doubtful thanks to a calf injury and the team brought on veteran Leo Araguz last week to kick in his stead. Kowalkowski, tight end David Sloan (knee) and ace return man Desmond Howard (shoulder), are all questionable.
Despite the new injuries, Dungy was pleased with Friday's practice, after a less-than-stellar effort on Thursday. The Bucs, who are 13-7 in the month of December under Dungy, have generally practiced well in West Florida's favorable climate late in the season, but this was not shaping up as one of their better weeks. Dungy was happy to see an upswing as the week came to an end.
"We were sharper today," he said. "We had good focus and it was better than yesterday."
As likely as Johnson is to play on Sunday, he is almost as certain to break the team's single-season receptions record at some point during the game. With 83 catches through 11 games, he will have buried the former mark of 86, set by Mark Carrier in 1989, by the end of the year.
Johnson needs just four catches to surpass Carrier, and he has not had that few in any game this season, even though he missed the second half of the Bucs' October 28 win over Minnesota and played most of the season opener at Dallas on a badly bruised quad that restricted his movements. He's had five or more receptions in every game and seven or more in eight of 11 contests.
Johnson is on pace to catch 121 passes over a full 16 games, which would put him in position to challenge the league's single-season record. Detroit's Herman Moore established the standard at 123 in 1995, right after Minnesota's Cris Carter had raised the bar to 122 the year before. Carter also had 122 catches in '95, and St. Louis' Isaac Bruce is fourth on the list with 119 grabs that same season.
Strangely, Johnson has put himself in position to join that list without scoring a single touchdown, after hauling in a team-high eight last season on just 71 receptions. Coming into 2001, he had averaged just under eight touchdowns per season, never less than five, and had scored once every 13 times he caught the ball.
Johnson has had the football thrown in his direction several times over the last two weekends, but the connection hasn't been made yet. Dungy was asked whether he expected Johnson to erase that strange goose-egg Sunday against the Lions' 22nd-ranked pass defense.
"I don't know," he said. "I certainly hope so. We hope we'll get a few more into the end zone than we did last week. It's not something that we're overly concerned about. We'd like to get a lot of people touchdowns, not just Keyshawn."
For his part, Johnson has shrugged off the issue. If anything, he has been troubled when the team as a whole has had difficulty in the red zone.
"Well, we're all frustrated (by red zone problems)," said Dungy. "When you don't score, that becomes frustrating. I've learned the best way to handle that is to do better, so that's what we're going to try to do. That includes everyone – coaches, players, everybody – and it could start on the practice field."
One of the more remarkable statistics of the Bucs' 2001 season is that the team has only lost the turnover battle in one game (the 27-24 loss to Chicago on November 18). Eight times, the Bucs have had more takeaways than giveaways and twice the ratio has been equal. Unfortunately, the Bucs are only 5-3 in those eight positive-ratio games, as opposed to 27-2 over the previous four seasons.
Turnovers have been instrumental in the Bucs' last two wins, however. The team scored 16 points off takeaways in those two games, and surrendered none. On the season, the Bucs have scored 70 points on drives or returns resulting from turnovers, while allowing just 21.
With an NFC-best plus-14 turnover ratio after 11 games, the Bucs may put up their best full-season mark ever in that category. The team was plus-18 in 1981 on the way to a Wild Card playoff berth, and plus-17 last year in securing another Wild Card. The next-best mark in team history, surprisingly, is just plus-5, in both 1978 and 1987.
The Bucs have never even had two consecutive seasons with a positive turnover ratio, much less a 27-game span with a mark of plus-31. They are the league's best in that category since the beginning of 2000, with only Denver coming anywhere close, at plus-27.