Gerald McCoy played in each of the first 13 games of the 2017 season for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and played well enough to earn his sixth consecutive Pro Bowl invitation. In the 13th game, however, he suffered a biceps injury and missed much of his team's narrow loss to the Detroit Lions.
The injury was notable not only because it took one of the Buccaneers' best defenders out of the lineup but because McCoy's first two NFL seasons – the only ones that did not land him in the Pro Bowl – were interrupted by biceps injuries that required surgery. In this case, McCoy avoided surgery and worked hard to make it back for the Buccaneers' 14th game, against Atlanta on Monday Night Football.
Pictures from the Buccaneers' practice on Wednesday.
Unfortunately for the Buccaneers, he was not cleared to play, and he joined his fellow defensive captain, linebacker Lavonte David, on the sideline that evening as the Bucs lost another three-point nail-biter to the Falcons. Given that Tampa Bay had been eliminated from playoff contention and there were only two games left, it would not have been unusual for McCoy (or David for that matter) to be shut down for the season's final fortnight.
That could have happened, if it was medically necessary, as was the case at the same point of his rookie season. That's the only way it would have happened, because nothing else was going to keep McCoy off the field against Carolina in Week 16 and New Orleans in Week 17. McCoy says there was nothing difficult about suiting up against the Panthers last Sunday, even if his arm wasn't 100 percent healthy.
"It wasn't [difficult]," he said. "I'm a professional athlete and I play a brutal sport. It is either you are going to be a man about it or not. I don't care how many times people question Gerald, I am going to give it everything I've got, so it wasn't hard to go out there. For me, preparation is everything, so when my preparation is limited physically, I have to prepare mentally. Fortunately enough for me, my first game back was against a familiar opponent, so I just went out there and did what I could for my team. Injuries and playing hurt and all that – that is normal for me. That ain't nothing."
Of course, that is the case for many, many players in the Buccaneers' locker room and around the league, especially at this time of year. But there are really two questions in such a situation: Can you play, and can you play well? McCoy came back with a very strong effort, recording one of the Bucs' two sacks of Panthers quarterback Cam Newton and adding two quarterback hits and four tackles. Having both McCoy and David back on the field (David also missed just one game with a hamstring ailment), clearly made a difference for the Bucs' defense, which gave up 410 yards to the Falcons at home but just 255 to the Panthers on the road. Carolina had been the NFL's highest-scoring offense since Week 10 of the season, but the Buccaneers' defense only allowed it to find the end zone one time.
Defensive Coordinator Mike Smith was impressed with McCoy's play in Charlotte, as well as his will to finish out the season.
"It says a lot about the character of Gerald," said Smith. "Unfortunately, he wasn't able to play the week before, but it was going to be hard keeping him off the field. He is the guy that is one of the lead dogs, especially in the defensive line he is the lead dog. When he is out there he is a force to be reckoned with. He got lots of pressure. They blocked him one-on-one [and] he [got] a sack and that's what you want your three technique to be able to do."
McCoy is preparing to play against the Saints in Sunday's season finale, too, and he is having no trouble finding the motivation to do so. When their teams miss the playoffs, NFL players get a maximum of 16 opportunities to put all of their hard work to use when it counts. McCoy already missed one game, so his maximum in 2017 is 15 such opportunities. He wants all of them.
"Regardless of what our record says, what do you mean I've got nothing to play for?" said McCoy. "I've been working to be a professional athlete my entire life, so you think just because I've got a little pain I'm going to not play, just because we're not going to the playoffs? I go out there and I give it my all, regardless of what the record says, regardless of people think I have to play for. A little pain, man? Whatever. If I can go, I go."
- McCoy's sack on Sunday came in the first quarter, a 12-yard, third-down takedown of Newton that ended Carolina's second drive. It was an impressive individual effort, but cornerback Robert McClain also had a key role in creating McCoy's pass-rush opportunity.
On the play, McClain was matched up with shifty running back Christian McCaffrey, the Panthers' leading pass-catcher, who was split out to the offense's left. Just before the snap, McClain moved up quickly so that he was in position to press McCaffrey at the line; he only made a little contact with McCaffrey after the snap but he shadowed him well on an outside-in move. Newton took a shotgun snap and looked immediately at McCaffrey, watching through his first two cuts but clearly deciding that McClain had him covered.
After a quick glance right, Newton looked back to his left but at this point McCoy had broken through and was steaming at him. The Panthers double-teamed Clinton McDonald with the center and left guard, and that left McCoy one-on-one with right guard Amini Silatolu, whom he beat with a spin move.
McClain was covering McCaffrey on the play because he had started the game at right cornerback, Ryan Smith's usual haunt. Smith had suffered an ankle injury the previous week and he worked out before the game in an attempt to get cleared but was unable to go. McClain stepped up and made his eighth start of the season, three at right cornerback and five when the defense has opened in a nickel package.
McClain was a relatively late signing for the Buccaneers, who picked him up in May after the draft. His familiarity with Mike Smith's scheme from three seasons in Atlanta were a draw, as was his versatility. The signing has proved to be an important one for the Bucs, for both of those reasons. Koetter calls McClain a good example of a "glue guy" on the roster.
"Yeah, he has helped a lot," said Koetter. "You've got to have guys like that. It's like an offensive lineman that can play more than one spot – Evan Smith, Kevin Pamphile. Robert McClain has been a lifesaver in that respect. [If] we need him at corner, he plays corner. [If] we need him at nickel, he plays nickel. He has experience with Smitty (Mike Smith) before. He played for us in Atlanta. He has also played for Carolina in this division. Bobby is a versatile guy that can do a lot of things. If we needed him as a punt returner or kick returner, he can do that. He has helped us on special teams. You've got to have guys like that."
- McClain and the Buccaneers held Carolina to 140 net passing yards, but they'll finish the season with a matchup against the NFL's fifth-ranked aerial attack when Drew Brees and company come to town. The cornerback group could get a bit of reinforcement before then if Smith is able to play.
Smith practiced in a limited fashion on Wednesday as the Bucs' began their onfield preparations for the Saints. He was one of five defenders listed as "limited" on the team's first official injury report of the week, joining McCoy, David and defensive ends Robert Ayers and Ryan Russell, both of whom have shoulder injuries.
McCoy and David are at the same point, in terms of participation, that they were at to start the previous week of practice, and as noted above they both played in Carolina. Smith was also limited in all three practices last week but was then regarded as "doubtful" on the week's final injury report. Ayers did not practice at all last week, so his return, even in a limited fashion, is a step in the right direction.
Wide receiver DeSean Jackson also did not practice in Week 16 after suffering an ankle injury in the Monday night game. He sat out the Carolina contest, with rookie Chris Godwin filling in and catching three passes for 98 yards. However, Godwin is now on the injury report after also sustaining an ankle injury in that game, and he did not practice on Wednesday. That makes Jackson's potential return more significant.
"DeSean, he brings that speed element that is rare," said Koetter. "We haven't done a good job of getting it to him over the top to date and that's not DeSean's fault. As far as injuries go … we've got a lot of guys that are fighting to make it back. We had the same thing last week. We will use every bit of time that we have and we will get the best 46 out there on Sunday [that] we can get."