QB Jeff Garcia is expected to start on Sunday against the Panthers
Tampa Bay Buccaneers Head Coach Jon Gruden stressed from the moment Brian Griese took over as the team's starting quarterback in Week Two that the team was almost certain to need Jeff Garcia on the field again at some point this season.
That point has arrived. With Griese sidelined all week by an elbow injury suffered in Denver last Sunday, plus Garcia's noticeable improvement in practice, the Buccaneers will return their opening-day starter to the lineup this Sunday against Carolina. That is almost certain, at least, after Griese missed his third straight day of work on Friday.
At the conclusion of the final full-scale practice of the week, Gruden discussed the team's injury status and confirmed that Garcia and Luke McCown were the two quarterbacks likely to be active against the Panthers.
"That's the way it looks right now, yes," Gruden said.
Garcia played well in relief of Griese in Denver, leading the team on its only touchdown drive of the day, a 90-yard march in the fourth quarter. He'll return to the lineup with first place in the NFC South on the line. At 3-2, Tampa Bay is one game behind the 4-1 Panthers.
As for Griese, he appears on the Bucs' injury report as "questionable" along with three other players, linebackers Barrett Ruud (knee) and Derrick Brooks (hamstring) and safety Sabby Piscitelli (elbow).
Gruden said that Ruud, who injured his knee in Denver and was limited in practice on Thursday and Friday, will likely suit up on Sunday.
"I think [he'll play]," Gruden said. "He practiced today and I know he's probably still a little bit sore. But he's a great football player and this means a lot to him and we're optimistic at this point."
Brooks has played through his hamstring injury in recent weeks, while Piscitelli was held out of the Denver game due to his elbow ailment, suffered in Week Four against Green Bay.
Two other players are listed as "out" for Sunday's game – fullback B.J. Askew (hamstring) and wide receiver Joey Galloway (foot).
Askew suffered his injury against Chicago and hasn't played since, and while Galloway made an appearance on the practice field Thursday, he was held out on Friday and will not play against Carolina.
Gruden said that the Friday rest should not be viewed as a step backward after a somewhat encouraging day for Galloway on Thursday.
"No, I don't believe he had a setback," Gruden said. "He just didn't go today and that's the best way I can put it."
As for the Panthers, wide receiver D.J. Hackett and center Ryan Kalil are listed as "doubtful" after both players failed to practice all week.
Four other Carolina players are listed as "questionable." Starting offensive tackles Jordan Gross (concussion) and Jeff Otah (ankle), safety Quinton Neal (ankle) and defensive tackle Darwin Walker (thigh) each sat out practice Wednesday, were limited on Thursday and were full participants on Friday.
Meanwhile, linebacker Na'il Diggs (foot) and quarterback Matt Moore (leg) are both listed as probable for the Panthers. Diggs participated fully the last two days of the week after being limited on Wednesday, while Moore was a full participant all three days.
Feeling the Heat
It is often assumed that teams playing their home games in certain natural circumstances hold an advantage over opponents who aren't used to those conditions – for example, the Green Bay Packers' success in frigid, snowy games in Wisconsin or even the Denver Broncos' home field advantage in the thin air of INVESCO Field at Mile High.
After a week of hot, summer-like weather beating down on his team as they prepared for the Panthers, Gruden was asked if the heat gave the Bucs an advantage over their adversaries. That has long been the team's philosophy behind staying in Florida for training camp. Gruden's answer, however, was that the warm weather might not be as big of a boon to the Bucs as some think.
"I keep hearing it's an advantage, but over the years, if you just go back and look at it, the Buccaneers have sometimes struggled coming out of the chutes, maybe because of having training camp in the heat and practicing in the heat," Gruden said. "There's a reason why people have air conditioning. That's why they've got Freon at the gas station. They try to stay out of the heat.
"We're probably acclimated to the heat. We're also probably concerned about how we practice, especially when you have eight or 10 or 15 players not practicing. We've had to adjust [the practice schedule] dramatically, to try to get any work done. That part's been challenging, but we are used to the heat and we expect to compete in the heat when we play at home and we look forward to it."
Since Gruden assumed control in 2002, the Bucs have posted a 12-8 home record in September and October, the two warmest early-season months in Florida. They are 8-3 in those two months over the last three seasons, however.
More from Coach Gruden
Gruden is clearly a busy man, spending long hours at the Bucs' practice facility preparing his team for Sunday's matchup against the rival Panthers.
But Gruden said he has tried to take some time to pay attention to the Bucs' cross-town compatriots – the Tampa Bay Rays – and their MLB playoff push, which continues tonight with Game One of the American League Championship Series against the Boston Red Sox.
"In some ways I'm very disappointed with my inability to keep touch with reality," Gruden said with a grin. "There's an election coming on here and I really haven't gotten to know either candidate, honestly. But I have a lot respect for pro sports and what it takes to get into this phase of the tournament. I'm a really big baseball fan; I love baseball.
"I've been to so many Rays games. To see what they've done, I think it's the greatest story in sports, I really do. I think it's the greatest story in sports and I just hope they can put an exclamation point on what has been one exciting year for me and my kids."
Here are a few other topics Gruden touched on Friday afternoon:
On Dexter Jackson's role in the offense: "We try to get him in there a few snaps. We've had enough changes right now at that position to make another one at this point. But he is up as a return specialist and we do have several plays in the game plan for him. Whether we get to them or not, we'll see."
On trying to limit dropped passes: "We take a lot of pride in handling the football. Whether you're a running back, a receiver or a tight end, you're all going to be viable receivers and we're looking for sure-handed guys. I've got a lot of confidence in Antonio [Bryant], to be honest with you. I think he's got as good of hands as anybody that we've had here. But nobody's perfect. You're going to have a dropped ball here and there. Every catch you make in this game you've got to do the best you can to secure it. These are very good, ball-hawking defenders. All I can say is it's going to have to be top-flight for us to win this game."
On the wide receivers stepping up in Joey Galloway's absence: "They've stepped up a lot. We might not have the most yards per completion, but we've done a good job coming from behind in Chicago. We threw the ball 67 times and threw for over 400 yards. That's a hard team to play against and a tough place to win. We came from behind, although it was sluggish at times, against Green Bay and did some good things, not just as receivers and stats but as blockers and football players. They're all playing hard, really hard. The tape, it's fun to watch. Guys are running full-speed patterns, we don't have a lot of broken assignments and we block together and we run hard for each other. That's a great start and that's something hopefully we can build on."
On the play of the offensive tackles last week: "There were some good things in the film. I just sat there and watched it several times. We did some good things. Obviously, Jeremy [Trueblood] had a few penalties and the sack was well-documented. He's a good player. He's going to have days – all of us are. But he's a good player. Our guys are playing really hard. It was Davin [Joseph's] first game of the season. We would like to play better as a whole. We had some spurts there were it was pretty impressive. We had some isolation there that was not good enough, and it hurt us. But they're good players, really good, and they're young and they're going to continue to get better."