The Bucs may have to lean more on TE Dave Moore, though he is one of seven players on the injury report
Sometime between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' first day of practice in Week 14 and the first day of work in Week 15, fall happened in the Bay area.
Most of the Bucs probably feel like they missed it – was it during the five-hour flight back from San Diego? – but they couldn't deny that autumn had passed. Because last Wednesday it was a summer-like 81 degrees on the Buccaneer practice field and this Wednesday it dipped as low as 43 and topped out in the mid 50s, before wind-chill.
That may not draw the Bucs much sympathy in such NFL haunts as Buffalo or Green Bay, but it was still a rather abrupt change.
"Oh man, we're not in Kansas anymore, I know that," said Bucs Head Coach Jon Gruden, who actually enjoyed the cold snap. "It's good. It's a nice, brisk change of pace, and I think the players enjoyed it a little bit. It's a nice little refresh for us."
Gruden said the falling mercury actually serves to liven up practice – players are eager for more reps, you see, in order to stay warm. But here's another reason the Bucs should welcome signs of winter: For the better part of the last decade, this particular Floridian team has actually played better when 'wind chill' replaces 'humidity' as the main weather consideration.
That is, December has been the Bucs' best month.
Perhaps it's the heat of the pennant race and not the cold that has inspired the Buccaneers, but since 1998 Tampa Bay is 19-9 in games played in December. That's a winning percentage of 67.9%. In all other regular-season games over that same span, the Bucs are 43-38, a success rate of 53.1%. If you believe that 109 games is big enough of a sample size, then that is a rather significant improvement in December.
Already the Bucs have looked good this December, though they're only 1-1. The team started out by dominating the first-place Atlanta Falcons, 27-0, then took the first-place San Diego Chargers to the wire on the road before falling 31-24. This Sunday's opponent, the New Orleans Saints, might remember a holiday-time visit to Raymond James Stadium three years ago, as the Bucs blasted New Orleans, 48-21, on Dec. 23, 2001.
The Bucs need a little of their December magic this season more than ever. Despite standing at 5-8, they are still alive in the playoff race and can make it by winning out and having a few other games fall their way. Obviously, the Bucs can only control the first half of that equation, but in doing so they can at least avoid a second straight losing season.
That's reason enough to heat up again in the final month.
"I never enjoy not being on the winning side of the ledger," said Gruden. "I'm in evil spirits when it comes to losing. Fortunately, we've got three games left. We've got an opportunity to win some more games and we will work our hearts out to do that.
"We haven't been heard from here in the last year and a half. Hopefully we can end with a bang and get a little good fortune."
Phillips Still Questionable
Starting free safety Jermaine Phillips is questionable on the Buccaneers' injury report, which means he is considered a 50-50 bet to play. If there is anything that tips the scales in one direction or another for this one week, it could be a consideration of the larger picture.
In other words, Phillips, who is recovering from surgery to repair a fracture in his right forearm, will only play if doing so doesn't jeopardize his long-term health and playing career. That is always the top concern when determining when to bring a player back from a significant injury.
"Obviously that's a big consideration," said Gruden. "We'll get the advice from our doctors and medical people and do what is best for Jermaine Phillips, his future, and go from there."
Phillips has practiced for the last several weeks, and looked good doing so, but he obviously doesn't have to absorb much contact on the practice field. The fact that his injury-report status has gone from out to doubtful to questionable over the last three weeks is an obvious sign that he is getting closer to returning to action, but Gruden was not sure on Wednesday whether that return would be this Sunday or at a later date.
"He did a little bit more, and once again his status is very questionable," said Gruden. "It's a serious injury he has. He wants to play, he's a tough guy, but we'll see how feels the next couple of days."
Phillips is the only one of seven players on the Bucs' injury report who is considered worse than probable. However, he practiced while five others on the list did not: TE Ken Dilger (ribs), S John Howell (ankle), DE Simeon Rice (hamstring), S Dwight Smith (knee) and T Kenyatta Walker (leg).
Also on the list as probable is TE Dave Moore, who has been fighting through an ankle ailment. He did practice on Wednesday after playing the last two games with almost no practice under his belt.
The Saints' injury report is one player shorter than the Bucs but perhaps more problematic. All six New Orleans players on the list are considered questionable or worse. Included on that list are two starters on the Saints' offensive line, right guard Montrae Holland, who is doubtful with a foot injury, and left guard Kendyl Jacox, who is questionable with a knee ailment.
Tight End Shuffle
The Bucs certainly hope Dilger is ready to go on Sunday, because their tight end position is otherwise in a state of flux.
With Will Heller, who usually played in the two-TE sets and gave Dilger breathers when necessary, going to injured reserve, the Bucs have made a series of moves to shore up the position. Two of the team's four tight ends heading into Sunday will be playing their first regular season games as Buccaneers (if active), as rookie Nate Lawrie was promoted from the practice squad on Tuesday and former Kansas City Chief Billy Baber was signed to the roster on Wednesday.
Moore's largest role this season has been as the team's long-snapper. The plan for how the team will work in its other three tight ends behind Dilger is still a work in progress.
"It's tough," said Gruden. "Obviously Dave Moore will play a more integral role and young Nate Lawrie – he's a big, 6-6, 270-pound guy that we drafted who has been working hard. He'll function, he'll play a role. This offense is very much suited around tight ends, running and receiving. We're going to have lean on those tight ends, and that's what we're out here practicing."
Baber is the least familiar commodity of the three, at least in Tampa, but he has played 29 NFL games and is considered a strong receiver.
"He came in a few weeks ago and had a good workout," said Gruden. "He can run. He had a pretty good career at Virginia. He's been in a passing system at Kansas City. He's an athletic guy; I kind of like him and obviously we're in need at that position right now given the fact that Ricky Dudley and Will Heller are out for the year."
Obviously, Baber is also behind the other two in terms of his familiarity with the Bucs' system, but that is an obstacle that can be overcome.
"We've had some guys come in and help us, like Ian Smart, who have learned it pretty quickly," said Gruden. "It's tough sledding any time you join a team in Week 14 of the season and expect to go out there and no what the other guys know."