The Buccaneers would love to have LB Cato June's playmaking and fiery leadership on the field Sunday, but he is doubtful to play due to a foot injury
It appears as if the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are not being rewarded for their caution.
The Buccaneers clinched the NFC South title in Week 15 and knew that their last two games were not likely to affect their playoff seeding or opponent. They badly wanted to win those final contests at San Francisco and against Carolina, but felt the need to acknowledge the high number of injuries already dotting their roster.
As such, the Buccaneers played mostly reserves for half of the San Francisco game and almost all of the Carolina game. Nevertheless, it appears as if they still lost one starter and potentially another during that stretch. This news comes after the Bucs lost reserve receiver and special teams ace Maurice Stovall to a broken arm in Week 16.
Tampa Bay released its more detailed injury report on Friday, and linebacker Cato June was listed as doubtful thanks to the foot injury he suffered in very limited playing time against the Panthers. It is very rare for a player to go from that doubtful designation on Friday to playing on Sunday, so it is likely that sixth-year man Ryan Nece will be starting at strongside linebacker in place of June when the Buccaneers take on the New York Giants in this weekend's Wild Card game.
"He's got an injury that you can make progress on, but if … three or four days doesn't make any difference, it will be difficult to play," said Gruden. "It's unfortunate right now."
Added Gruden rather ruefully: "I probably should have rested him."
The irony, of course, is that Gruden did intend to rest June along with the rest of the starters, after just a short stint in the season finale. Guard Arron Sears might have played longer – the offensive line was the one group of starters that got little time off over the last two weeks – but he suffered an ankle injury on the second play of the game.
As has been the case all week, Gruden seems more optimistic about Sears' chance to play than June's, but the rookie linemen practiced little all week. He was listed as questionable on Friday's report.
Sears will be a game day decision. If he is unable to play, the Buccaneers will turn to seventh-year man Matt Lehr, a former starter with the Atlanta Falcons.
"If that was the case Matt would start at left guard," confirmed Gruden. "But we're still holding out hope on Arron Sears. We're eager to play the game. Again it's unfortunate that we've potentially lost a couple players but we'll hold out hope until kickoff."
The Giants may be down a few starters, as well.
New York's Friday injury report listed two starters as doubtful: cornerback Sam Madison (stomach) and center Shaun O'Hara (knee). Neither player practiced at any point this week.
O'Hara is considered one of the Giants' top linemen and thus would be a significant loss. However, the Giants have an experienced veteran to replace O'Hara in former Seattle Seahawk Grey Ruegamer. On the other hand, they could be a little thin at cornerback.
That's because Kevin Dockery, who has played in 13 games this season with four starts and, is also on the injury report with a hip flexor ailment. He is considered questionable, though he did participate in practice on a limited basis on Friday after sitting it out on Thursday.
A third starter, weakside linebacker Kawika Mitchell, is also considered questionable due to a knee injury. Mitchell did practice in a limited fashion on Friday, the first action he has seen this week. Reserve defensive end Dave Tollefson is also questionable due to a concussion but was able to practice without limitations on Friday.
Madison, O'Hara and Mitchell were all hurt during the Giants' season-ending loss to the New England Patriots. The Giants chose to play their starters throughout the contest.
Four other Giants are listed on the report as probable: RB Ahmad Bradshaw (calf), wide receiver Plaxico Burress (ankle), tight end Mike Matthews (illness) and wide receiver Sinorice Moss (back). All but Burress practiced fully on Friday.
Ready to Lead
Undrafted out of San Jose State, quarterback Jeff Garcia spent five years in the Canadian Football League before stints in the NFL with the San Francisco 49ers, Cleveland Browns, Detroit Lions and Philadelphia Eagles before landing with the Buccaneers.
As another trip to the postseason nears, Garcia took a moment on Friday to reflect on his path to the NFL and just how much he appreciates where he's at.
"I think especially since I'm getting to the point in my career where you just don't know how much longer it's going to last, I have great appreciation for what I have gained through the long road that I've been down, and also what I'm about to experience," Garcia said. "Every sort of opportunity is something that you have to appreciate.
"I think just having gone the direction that I went, with the Canada days, the non-drafted days, all those things should make you appreciate and really value every single day that you do have in this league. I'm trying to make the most of every single day. I'm not about looking toward next season and what next season has to offer. I'm about how can I be the best quarterback on the field this Friday of practice. That's kind of my approach."
Gruden also acknowledged Garcia's long road to becoming a starter in the NFL, but said his journey has helped mold him into the leader he is today. That, said Gruden, will surely be a key factor Sunday against the Giants.
"He's got a lot of experience, period," Gruden said. "I think that's what makes him who he is. He's had so many different kinds of experiences. He did it the hard way. If we win this game, it will be done the hard way also."
As Garcia admitted, he doesn't always play with textbook style, and he may not attract the most attention in NFL circles, but the grit and determination he has developed throughout his career are what rub off on his teammates and truly make him a leader.
"I think when you are an outsider looking in, you just see kind of a smaller-scale, scrawny sort of a guy trying to make things happen on the field," Garcia said. "It's not by any means how you teach it or coach it; it's just something that I try to make happen. It's almost like organized chaos at times. I know what's happening, but not everybody else may think I know what's happening.
"From an outsider looking in, they probably do have those doubts, because I wasn't that first-rounder, I didn't come into the NFL right away. I had to earn my stripes in other leagues and come basically through the back door, hoping that somebody would give me a chance. It's when I've gotten those opportunities and those people who have been around me who are giving me those opportunities, they start to see what I'm about, and they start to believe. That's when it trickles down to everybody else."
One can certainly see that affect on the Buccaneers' offense this season. The team is hoping it continues to grow in the postseason.
Kiffin Sees Hall in Sapp's Future
Oakland Raiders defensive tackle Warren Sapp announced his retirement on Thursday, bringing to a close a remarkable career that included 96.5 sacks, seven Pro Bowls, an NFL Defensive Player of the Year award in 1999 and, most importantly, a Super Bowl championship with the Buccaneers in 2002.
Sapp played the first nine of his 13 NFL seasons in Tampa after being selected in the first round in 1995, and he is clearly one of the best players in franchise history. His 77 sacks as a Buccaneer fell just shy of eclipsing the team record of Lee Roy Selmon (78.5). Selmon is the only player in the Pro Football Hall of Fame who played the majority of his career as a Buccaneer…so far.
Defensive Coordinator Monte Kiffin, who acknowledges that he inherited the perfect player for his defensive schemes when he arrived in 1996, believes Sapp will join Selmon in the Hall. In fact, he believes Sapp will be the first of three cornerstones of the Bucs' turnaround in the 1990s to gain induction, along with linebacker Derrick Brooks and safety John Lynch.
"Oh, yeah, there's no doubt," said Kiffin. "Those three guys, to me, all three of them are Hall of Famers. They did it all. They turned this program around, they turned this franchise around and they took us to the Super Bowl. What more can you ask for? I was glad to be a part of it."
Kiffin knows that it must have been difficult for Sapp to walk away from the gridiron.
"Let me tell you something – the guy loves football," said Kiffin. "He's a football junkie. He knows everybody that's ever played the game, way back. He knows the history of football and he's unbelievably intelligent. When something would break down, he would know the linebackers' assignments. He's really smart and he took a lot of pride in knowing what our defense was."
As dominant as Sapp was, he was also a lightning rod for attention. He was outspoken on and off the field, of course, but he also had a feel for the big moment. Nothing brought that out in him more than a meeting with the Green Bay Packers and Brett Favre. The two had some classic battles in the late '90s and early '00s, when the Bucs and Packers were together in the NFC Central.
"We'd go play in Green Bay and he'd say, 'I hate cold weather. I hate it,'" laughed Kiffin. "He'd be in the locker room taking two hours to get dressed. But then he would go out and he would play lights-out. Warren's pretty darn special. That's what the three-technique [defensive tackle position] is all about."
Gruden knows the joy of inheriting a team with Sapp at the center, too. When Gruden arrived in Tampa in 2002, he struck an instant accord with the outgoing defender. Though the Bucs and Sapp parted ways after the 2003 season, Gruden is sorry to see him leaving the playing field.
"I think football needs a Warren Sapp," said Gruden. "He had a great career. I want to thank him for everything he did for me and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. It's a sad day for me personally, but I wish him well and he'll always be welcome here."