WR Michael Clayton's emergence is one thing that gives Head Coach Jon Gruden optimism for the season's second half
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers came off the practice field shortly after noon on Friday, basically concluding not one but two weeks of on-field preparation for the Kansas City Chiefs. There will be a walk-through on Saturday morning and meetings at the hotel in the evening, but the scout-team work and game-plan development is mostly finished.
The elongated schedule provided by the bye week gave the team an opportunity to step back and take a good look at itself, just before the season's halfway point. And while a 2-5 record means an uphill climb into playoff contention, Head Coach Jon Gruden likes much of what he sees, both for this weekend and the second half of the season.
"There are some things I'm really, truly excited about," said Gruden. "The young flanker [Michael Clayton] is like a three-year veteran right now, with all the snaps that he's taken. Brian Griese's going into his fourth game now as a player for us; that's something that's hopefully going to help us out a little bit. [Michael Pittman] has been good and the offensive line appears to be coming together."
Not everything is roses, of course. That would make the team's record hard to explain. Some of the things that hurt the Bucs early – third-down defense, big plays surrendered in the running game, ill-timed turnovers, lack of a pass-rush and a consistent running attack – appear to be mended or on the mend. But there are still some injury situations hanging over the team, and there is still the need to prove it can win back-to-back games, and then three in a row, and so on.
"We've lost a couple defensive tackles [Ellis Wyms and Damian Gregory], we lose Mike Alstott, we're unsure of the status of some of the receivers," said Gruden. "We still have some obstacles that we've got to overcome. We do have some injuries that are significant. We need some young people, some players to step up in the second half."
Internally, the Bucs absolutely believe that the season still has life despite their record. Externally, there are doubts, and that's to be expected. But the NFL seems to make the unexpected routine year after year – this season, how about the Detroit Lions winning their first three road games or the Pittsburgh Steelers taking five decisions in a row with a rookie quarterback – so a comeback from 2-5 hardly seems far-fetched.
It is even less so when that 2-5 team continues to prepare and play with the drive of a 5-2 squad.
"I've been around some pretty bizarre things," said Gruden. "The tuck rule and Super Bowl runs. I just want our team to keep getting better. I realize we're 2-5. I'm really proud of this team, more than any other I've been on for the way they work and the way they compete. With that is going to come great things. When it is, I don't know. You keep working hard, you keep running to the football, playing hard and preparing hard, good things are going to happen here."
A Go for Joe
Joe Jurevicius remains officially questionable on the Bucs' injury report, a nod to the unpredictability of a sore back, but there seems to be little question at One Buc Place that the seventh-year receiver will be in the lineup on Sunday against the Chiefs. After Friday's practice, which Jurevicius completed without issue, Gruden said he was expected to start at split end.
Jurevicius, who made his 2004 debut against Chicago before the bye week, missed the first six weeks of the season due to back surgery in early August. In the days that followed, he experienced some soreness in his lower back, but he never felt as if it would keep him off the field. By the end of the current week of practice, the team appeared to agree.
"He was very tight early in the bye week period and early this week, but he's responded pretty well," said Gruden. We expect him to start; how long he goes, we'll see."
Two other receivers, Charles Lee and Joey Galloway, also remained questionable on the injury report, but their status may be more fitting of that designation. Gruden said both players were making strides but were limited in practice. It is likely that both will be game-time decisions on Sunday. Or rather, 90-minutes-before-game-time decisions, as that's when inactives must be officially submitted.
More from Coach Gruden
In addition to the above, Gruden touched on a variety of other subjects after practice.
On if the Chiefs blitz on defense as extensively as any team in the league: "Yeah, if they feel it. If they feel they can get to you, they're not going to be shy about it. They're going to line up in your face and bring pressure. And not just one, not just two – they'll bring seven or eight men and they'll enjoy it. They've had great success with it and they have great confident in it."
On having confidence in the Bucs' defense: "I think I should. I believe these guys have earned the right to say they're a darn good defensive team. On paper, they rank pretty high statistically, also, although that's not our measuring stick here. We realize we've got a great offensive club coming in here. It will be a tremendous challenge for us. We'll see. We've got a couple of defensive tackles out. We expect them to try to probe the front and run the ball, and at the same time they have some real skill on the outside in that tight end."
On teams whose win-loss records have been surprising this year: "It is what it is. Every year there are three or four teams that jump to the forefront, and there are three or four teams that you say, 'Well, that's a bit of a surprise, too.' But in the big picture, there aren't a hell of a lot of surprises in my opinion."
On if he was surprised by the Bucs' 0-4 start: "Well, I'd like to win those games. We felt we played well enough to win against St. Louis, we felt we played well enough to beat Denver, we fumbled the ball on the one-inch yard-line against Seattle and had a key turnover against the Washington Redskins. Who knows what might happen? Yeah, we're disappointed at going 0-4, but it's not like I can get it back. We've got a good opportunity to win a game and finish the second quarter 3-1 and see what happens."
On if he can imagine coaching when he's 68, as Dick Vermeil is doing: "I can't imagine getting to 68. Coach Vermeil's my idol; I've said that before. His energy, his passion – he pours it all into it, every day. He's a blast to be around and I'm sure he's a blast to play for. He's a great coach and a great strategist. He's a very fundamentally sound football coach."