QB Jeff Garcia will see his first game action of the preseason tonight against Jacksonville
From an excused absence to pay tribute to his father's 1973 junior college national championship to a calf strain that sidelined him for much of the remainder of training camp, starting quarterback Jeff Garcia hasn't seen much of the practice field.
However, after he made his long-awaited return to practice earlier this week, Garcia will clear another hurdle Saturday night, as he'll start for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers against the Jacksonville Jaguars in the third game of the preseason.
Garcia's veteran status, combined with the many mental reps he took while sidelined, allowed Head Coach Jon Gruden to remain confident during his starter's absence. It also allows Gruden to insert Garcia back into the lineup with little unrest.
Yet as exciting as it may be to finally have Garcia back, Gruden is approaching the situation with caution. Not only is Garcia still on the mend from his leg injury, but entering his 10th NFL season, the veteran truly doesn't need that much preseason work anyway. Thus, the team will limit his action against the Jaguars.
"I think he's alright," Gruden said. "He practiced, took about 60 percent of the snaps this week. He'll hopefully get a couple series tonight. No matter how it goes, he's not going to play a long period of time. But we are pleased with where he is and we're ready to roll here. We're excited to have him back."
Gruden said Garcia's absence could prove to be a blessing in disguise. In lieu of Garcia, the team's other quarterbacks – Brian Griese, Luke McCown, Chris Simms and even rookie Josh Johnson – have all been able to get some extra work they might not have otherwise enjoyed.
"We take hundreds and hundreds of snaps on the practice field and I've been criticized for having long practices and too many snaps," Gruden said. "Once the regular season starts, the backup quarterbacks get no snaps – zero. So they need to play. We need to make sure Luke and Brian, their command of the offense is what we need it to be, and we obviously want to keep Jeff clean, there's no question about that. But it's a great time to develop Luke McCown and get Brian Griese re-acclimated to our offense and that's what we're doing."
Despite Garcia's return, there is one veteran Buccaneer on offense who isn't quite ready to make an in-game appearance just yet – wide receiver Joey Galloway.
As frustrating as Galloway's absence has been, Gruden said his No. 1 wideout's return is tantalizingly close. Galloway has been practicing all week, albeit in a limited fashion, and likely won't see action against Jacksonville. But his full, 100-percent return to action could come as early as Monday.
"If he's not ready to go Monday, I might have to do something radical," Gruden joked. "I say it every week, but I just saw him run four 50-yard dashes on grass in 5.1 seconds. So for all the Galloway fans, me included, he'll be back on Monday. He looks extremely good right now and we're excited about that, because we need him."
As the Bucs work to get their veteran quarterback and wide receiver back into the fold, Gruden made one final comment on the team's third preseason contest. Usually teams will leave their starters in the game much longer during the third preseason tilt, but Gruden said the Jacksonville game would still be an excellent opportunity to make some final evaluations as roster cuts loom.
"To be honest, we're going to take a few of our guys out early because I want to see [linebacker] Geno Hayes play against a Pro Bowl fullback, Greg Jones," Gruden said. "I'd like to see [linebacker Matt] McCoy run our defense from the middle linebacker standpoint. Some of these guys I want to see play against the Jaguars, who are a very violent, physical offensive football team. It'll help us make our final evaluations.
"Some of our players won't play, and some of our players might play six to 10 plays, so I'm not going to become a basket case worrying about it. I want everybody to play well and I want to win the game. But I also want to make sure that we do a good job evaluating who our fourth, fifth, sixth and potentially seventh linebacker is; I want to know who our fourth, fifth, sixth and potentially seventh wide receiver is. Those are tough calls for us right now because we're running out of time."
In addition to Garcia's first start, the Buccaneers also announced a handful of lineup changes for tonight's contest. With Galloway out, third-year man Maurice Stovall will start at the receiver position commonly called "split end." At flanker, Michael Clayton will get the call over Ike Hilliard. Second-year man Byron Storer will once again open the game at fullback in place of injured starter B.J. Askew.
Most notably, rookie Jeremy Zuttah will get his first NFL start, albeit of the preseason variety. Zuttah will open the game at right guard, replacing team captain Davin Joseph, who suffered a foot fracture last Sunday against New England. Joseph is out for an indeterminate amount of time, so Zuttah's performance might be one of the most critical evaluations for the Buccaneers tonight.
On defense, Ryan Sims will once again start for Jovan Haye at under tackle. Haye is close to returning from a groin strain suffered during training camp.
The Jaguars reported no changes to their lineups from tonight's pre-announced starters. However, they had already ruled out several nominal starters, including wide receivers Jerry Porter and Reggie Williams and center Brad Meester. Troy Williamson and Dennis Northcutt will start at receiver and Dennis Norman will fill in at center.
Kickoff is at 7:30 p.m. Buccaneers.com will follow with a rundown of all the first-half action at halftime and then provide a detailed review at the end of the game.