K Matt Bryant, who was able to practice on Wednesday and is probable for Saturday's game, has helped the Bucs improve their road fortunes this year
There is one sound that NFL players may cherish as much as they do the roar of approval from the home crowd. That is the sound of silence.
There is something particularly sweet about celebrating success on the road, in a stadium that has had the breath sucked out of it. And when your opponent is among the league's best, and you've just invaded their turf and taken away their expected victory, it is that much sweeter. It certainly makes for a nice flight back home.
And that is why, even though the home field advantage is very real in the NFL, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers may not have dreaded the three-game road swing they're currently on as much as one might have expected.
"I don't know, there's just something about playing on the road that a pro football, a pro athlete, likes," said Head Coach Jon Gruden. "You like to win in other guy's backyard. That's a great accomplishment."
The Buccaneers have had a lot of upbeat flights home this season, having won five of their seven regular-season road games so far. That includes the first two of this rare three-game tour; now only (only!) the defending champion New England Patriots stand in their way of making it a sweep.
"We're looking forward to this," said cornerback Ronde Barber of the chance for the first three-consecutive-game road sweep in franchise history. "It's a home game for them but at the same time it's an exciting game for us. It's the last of our road trips. We'll see if we can find a way to continue the success of this season, beating the World Champions."
Actually, the Bucs' wins in Baton Rouge and Charlotte constituted just the seventh pair of road wins on consecutive weekends in the team's 30 years. The most recent previous one was near the beginning of 2002, when Tampa Bay went to Cincinnati and Atlanta on back-to-back weekends and won both games rather handily. That Buc squad, which would wind up Super Bowl champs, won its first four road games, and its last two, and finished with a team-record 6-2 mark away from home.
It was a beautiful formula for the first 12-4 season in franchise history: 6-2 at home, 6-2 on the road. The Bucs could still duplicate that this season by winning out, but there thoughts are focused solely on getting the next win and finishing up one of their most successful fall travel circuits ever.
It's no coincidence that all of the Bucs' previous plus-.500 road campaigns have come in playoff seasons; it was, you could say, the cause as much as the effect in 1979 (5-3), 1997 (5-3) and 2002 (6-2). But there have been some promising seasons derailed by poor road fortunes. The 1998 Bucs were 6-2 at home but just 2-6 on the road, and they missed the playoffs by one game. The 1984 Bucs – a team with a potent offense and less effective defense – was an even more extreme case, going 6-2 at home but 0-8 on the road.
So why would a specific team, like this year's Bucs, be better on the road than some others. Well, really, they've been a pretty strong road team since the arrival of Gruden and his staff. The 2003 team actually won more games on the road (4-4) than they did at home (3-5). Last year's team didn't enjoy its travel, going 1-7, but this year's squad is only the second one in team history to win all its road games within the division (also the 1979 team).
"We do have fun on the road, I think," speaking to the importance of team camaraderie when trying to succeed in hostile environments. "We have a good schedule. I think it gives the guys a little flexibility. I think it's conducive to winning – concentrating, being comfortable and winning. Our owners put us up in great hotels, they feed us well and the transportation's first class – why wouldn't you be able to play good on the road?"
In the end, really, the upsurge in the Bucs' fortunes on the road may be the same ones that have led to a better record overall. Most notably, the team has come through in close games the way it failed to do quite frequently the last two years. That's certainly true of the last two Carolina visits before the one last weekend, and the Bucs have come up short in down-to-the-wire contests in San Diego, St. Louis, Washington, Jacksonville and New Orleans the last few years.
"I think it's a credit to our team," said Gruden. "We've been a pretty good road team the last few years, but again, we've lost a lot of tight games in the last few years, also. I think Matt Bryant is a big reason why we've won some of these tight games. Just overall, the execution's been better."
The Bucs filed their first official injury report of the week on Wednesday, but it proved to be the exact list Gruden had hinted at the previous two days.
Starting defensive tackle Anthony McFarland is, indeed, doubtful for Saturday's game. He has a left hamstring strain that has kept him out of the first two days of practice and the Bucs don't expect to have him in the lineup. Reserve linebacker Marquis Cooper, one of the team's strong special teams players, is considered questionable for the game but he did practice on Thursday. Cooper has missed the last two games with a chest strain.
Kicker Matt Bryant followed his normal routine and kicked in practice on Wednesday (adhering what would normally be a Thursday schedule for a Sunday game). He performed well and is considered probable for the game, though he did not attempt any kickoffs. Bryant followed the same pattern last week and was able to play in Carolina.
Cornerback Juran Bolden is also on the injury report due to a calf strain. He did not practice on Thursday but is considered probable for the game.
The Patriots, as usual, submitted a very lengthy injury report, with 14 players on the list, all marked as questionable except for tackle Matt Light, who is doubtful.
Included in those 14 are five players who started last week's game – tackle Tom Ashworth, quarterback Tom Brady, running back Corey Dillon, cornerback Asante Samuel and safety Michael Stone – as well as five others who have started games recently – running back Heath Evans, tight ends Daniel Graham and Ben Watson, tackle Nick Kaczur and fullback Patrick Pass.
Gruden: Barber Deserving
Gruden was pleased to see cornerback Ronde Barber take home this week's NFC's Defensive Player of the Week award. Gruden has long considered Barber worthy of more league-wide recognition.
"I think he's great," said the coach. "I'm just happy he gets that national respect, because he's accomplished things that no one in this league has ever done. I'm just really happy for him, because nobody works at it like he does. He's getting results again and again and again. God bless him. Hopefully he's got a lot left these next few weeks."
Barber won the award after turning in the game-sealing interception near the Bucs' goal line in the fourth quarter, then adding the sack that made him the first 20-sack/20-interception cornerback in NFL history. A Buc since 1997, the second season of Defensive Coordinator Monte Kiffin's incredibly successful tenure in Tampa, Barber has mastered the system upon which the team's success has been built. However, Gruden believes Barber would excel in any sort of defense.
"People will say that it's the system that allows him to do these things; that's a crock," he said. "He's a great player. He'd function, he'd flourish on anybody's team, I believe."