As suddenly as Tanard Jackson was lost to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last season, he could be just as swift in his return in 2011.
On Tuesday, the NFL reinstated Jackson following a 56-week suspension. The fourth-year safety immediately headed over to One Buccaneer Place for his first meeting with the team in over a year and a brief question-and-answer session with the media.
By Wednesday afternoon, Jackson was back on the practice field and it remains possible – perhaps even *probable, *depending upon how aggressively you interpret the pleased reactions of the coaching staff – that he will be in uniform and ready to play on Sunday afternoon against the New Orleans Saints.
That decision had definitely not been made on Wednesday. However, Jackson did nothing to hurt his cause during the two-hour afternoon practice, or a pair of meetings with Defensive Backs Coach Jimmy Lake in the preceding 18 hours. Both physically and mentally, Jackson appeared sharp. That's impressive, given that he last played in Week Two of the 2010 season - 19 games ago – before his suspension abruptly ended his season.
"Yeah, there's definitely a chance [Jackson will play Sunday]," said Lake. "We had a really good meeting last night and he actually started to spit out some of the coaching points. He was finishing my sentences, which is a good sign. Then this morning we had another good meeting.
"He looked great [in practice]. He looked like he's been working out. He's in great shape. He's actually even got a little more muscle on him than he had the last time I saw him. He looks ready to go. We'll see as the week goes and how it progress and how he looks on tape in practice, then we'll make that decision before game time."
Lake said that the coaching staff uses the entire week of practice to install the defense incrementally, so there are still hurdles for Jackson to cross. The final decision will come down to Head Coach Raheem Morris, who will want to use the entire week to evaluate the returned player. Still, Morris also liked what he saw on Wednesday.
"You know, you've got to get through the week obviously, but we know how good of a player Tanard is," said Morris. "There's no secret about that. He's obviously done a great job getting his body ready to practice and play. Obviously, I'll lean on my guys and Mark Dominik and make that decision at the end of the week, but he's certainly out there practicing with us. He's certainly ready to go as far as the mental standpoint. We'll just have to go figure it out and see when we're going to put him out there in the fire."
It is certainly worth noting that Morris and the others are using the word "when" and not "if" when it comes to the prospect of Jackson regaining a significant role on the defense. The debate may continue this week as to whether or not he is ready to play against the Saints on Sunday, but it's safe to say the team thinks Jackson can be a factor again at some point this season, probably sooner rather than later. That's particularly encouraging considering the Bucs have recently been dealing with defensive subtractions rather than additions, including the ankle injury defensive tackle Gerald McCoy may be dealing with for a few weeks.
"It's a real big shot in the arm," said Lake. "First, just look at our [DB] room to begin with. You lose Devin Holland for the season. We already lost Cody Grimm for the season. So at least we have a safety coming in to help out, and it's not just a safety off somebody's practice squad, it's actually our safety who we think is a pretty good player. And also for the defense – we've lost D-tackles and linebackers, and just to have a healthy body come in that's a talented player, it's a real big shot in the arm.
"Tanard Jackson's a playmaker, I think we all know that. You bring a playmaker back onto the team, that's just another individual that can make a big play for us on Sundays. It's a big deal and we're all happy for him."
Will Jackson be contributing big plays as soon as this Sunday? That remains to be seen, but he has at least raised the level of optimism at One Buccaneer Place for Thursday, Friday and Saturday as a final decision awaits. Considering the twin separations of the suspension and the NFL's offseason labor strife, the Bucs couldn't have known exactly what shape Jackson would be in for his eventual return. So far, they couldn't be more pleased.
"He looked good," said Morris. "He looked great. He came back and looked healthy. He ran around well. Obviously you want to see him on tape, but when you have good coaches a lot of stuff doesn't leave you, and he's had a couple of good ones. He had the ability to retain a lot of information and come back and bounce right back into the fold. We're fired up to have him back, and he's fired up to be around the team again. Getting him back is like getting a younger brother back for me. It's awesome."