C John Wade had started every game since joining the Bucs before the 2003 season, but he'll miss the remainder of the 2004 campaign
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, winners of three of their last four games, have made an abrupt, 180-degree swing on a season that started off very poorly. Unfortunately, the turn wasn't sharp enough to throw off the injury bug.
As pleased as the Bucs are with their 34-31 victory over Kansas City on Sunday and their 3-1 second quarter of the season, there was still reason to be somber on Monday morning. The latest in an inexplicably endless run of injuries: starting center John Wade has a dislocated right knee and will be out for the season.
On an offensive line that has seen massive changes over the last 18 months, Wade has been the rock in the middle. He is the only player to have started every game on the Bucs' O-line since the beginning of the 2003 season.
Now Wade is simply the seventh player on Tampa Bay's growing injured reserve list – or he will be when the Bucs officially make that move this week. He joins TE Rickey Dudley, RB Charlie Garner, DT Damian Gregory, WR Frank Murphy, WR Edell Shepherd and DT Ellis Wyms on that list. In addition, several other players, including G Kerry Jenkins, WR Sylvester Morris, DE Lamar King and DT DeVone Claybrooks, landed on IR before later being released. Also, WR Joe Jurevicius and G Matt O'Dwyer spent the first six weeks of the season on reserve lists, WR Joey Galloway missed six games with a groin injury and FB Mike Alstott is in the middle of a month-long layoff with a knee injury.
"That's the problem when you get people hurt," said Head Coach Jon Gruden. "Now you have to work doubly hard on your backup plans. Just like when you lose Alstott, when you lose Charlie Garner, whoever it may be. You have to go deep into your roster for a contingency plan."
The specific plan for Wade appears to be the same one the team used to get through almost the entire game on Sunday, as the veteran center went down on the Bucs' very first offensive play. That would be the elevation of second-year man Sean Mahan, a 2003 fifth-round draft pick, to the starting lineup. Mahan built confidence among the coaching staff with a fine performance against the Chiefs.
"Mahan will get the ball and be the center as it appears right now," said Gruden. "I thought he did a pretty good job in the game. Those were very tough circumstances to go in there on the second play of the game, you're first real NFL long-term action."
The Bucs could also employ starting left guard Matt Stinchcomb at center, a position at which he previously started with the Oakland Raiders. That move would be made more palatable by the possible return of O'Dwyer, who will begin practicing on Wednesday. O'Dwyer could be activated off the reserve/physically-unable-to-perform list at any time in the next few weeks. At the moment, that appears to be a backup plan, however, as Mahan will get first crack at the job.
"He's a smart guy," said Gruden of Mahan. "He's taken a lot of reps. He's no different than any backup at any other position. It will be a challenge. Obviously inexperience is a hard thing to overcome. The Atlanta Falcons are going to give him a lot of looks, for sure. But he's a leader, he's a good kid, he's smart, quick on his feet and a good athlete and a guy that we're excited about as a future prospect here. We're looking forward to seeing more of his performances although it is very unfortunate that we lost John Wade who is a good center in the NFL."
Wade isn't the Bucs' only injury concern as they prepare to face NFC South Division-leading Atlanta this weekend. Among the others is kicker Martin Gramatica, who is suffering from a right hip flexor strain. Gruden believes Gramatica will be able to kick in the Georgia Dome on Sunday but does expect him to start the week as 'questionable' on the injury report.
Obviously, the Bucs would have to sign another kicker if Gramatica proves unable to play. However, the team knows it can wait late into the week to make that decision.
"I've been through this a little bit with kickers in the past," said Gruden. "We expect him to kick. We don't think this injury is going to hold him out of the game. I don't want to create that much concern. We expect him to be okay. He'll probably be off his kicking routine on Wednesday. Hopefully, he'll be ready to go later in the week."
Galloway, a game-time decision on Sunday who was able to see limited action, will be questionable again this week after finishing the game with a groin strain. He did not play again after coming out early in the third quarter, and as he feared earlier in the week before the Kansas City game, his original injury could be troublesome the rest of the way.
"I am sure he is going to struggle throughout the season," said Gruden. "It's unfortunate. I think he is a great player; what he did yesterday on two touchdown drives. He has two huge 20-yard receptions, beating bump-and-run guys down the field. He gets a key PI [pass interference] on another long play down the field. I am so excited to have him here and as time moves forward we are going to continue to add more speed to this offense. We want to have a fast, explosive offensive team and you have to have receivers like this; that can run fast and play football. He certainly delivered in his first game, having been out for two months."
S Jermaine Phillips, on the other hand, returned to the game after sustaining a right forearm fracture on Sunday and is expected to play again this coming Sunday despite the injury.
A more serious concern could be starting defensive tackle Anthony McFarland, who missed much of Sunday's game with what has been diagnosed as a right tricep strain. "He'll be very questionable for the game in Atlanta, although we'll be optimistic that he'll be able to play," said Gruden.
The Bucs are already very thin at McFarland's position. After he went down on Sunday, his snaps were split between Jon Bradley, more of a run-stuffer, and Dewayne White, more of a pass-rusher. Bradley, a rookie, was just signed off the practice squad on Saturday and White, a defensive end by trade, has only recently begun playing inside.
One bit of good news: quarterback Chris Simms looks as if he'll be coming off the weekly injury report. Simms, who hasn't played since straining muscles in his left (throwing) shoulder at New Orleans on October 10, is expected to be at full speed when the Bucs begin practice on Wednesday.