Young players can make a good impression on the practice field but really need game time to prove they deserve a roster spot
If you're trying to project how long the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' starters will play on Saturday night against Jacksonville, you might first want to determine exactly who those starters are.
But isn't that obvious? Not so fast, said Head Coach Jon Gruden after practice on Thursday.
"We don't really know who all the starters are at this point," said Gruden. "We're still working ourselves through that. We want to be fair to the players who have worked so hard here, give them an opportunity to make the team. We've got to make some tough calls at every position. It's been very competitive."
Yes, we're discussing two different frames of reference here. The Bucs will know their 22 game-opening players before kickoff on Saturday night, of course; the coaching staff almost certainly knows that already. What Gruden wants to determine is who the starters are. Who will be at the top of the depth chart nine days from now, after both roster cuts? Who will be on the field in the Superdome on September 7?
Those are the important decisions, and they will be more obvious after Saturday's game.
"We're far from being ready in terms of putting the final 53 together but I'm really pleased with the effort and the detail of this football team," said Gruden. "At this point, through two preseason games, we've avoided turnovers and penalties, and those are two things that we've hit on and made an impression on the players. They've really delivered; they've done their part.
"It's a key evaluation for us and there's a big cutdown after this. We'll make our decisions based on what we see in this football game."
Will the players who start on Saturday play longer into the game than they did against Miami or New England? Almost certainly. That's a preseason pattern that never seems to change. But, as has also been the norm in past Week Three outings, the Bucs will remove different players at different times in the game. Who stays and who goes will depend upon such factors as pre-existing injuries at certain positions, the success of the offense and the young players the Bucs most want to see in action.
"Some of the starters, projected starters, will play longer than others but it depends on the position and it depends on how the game goes," said Gruden. "We're going to try to let everybody play; they've earned that right. We're off to a pretty good start, at least in the preseason, and we're going to use this for what it is."
In the third game of the 2007 preseason, a 31-28 win at Miami, quarterback Jeff Garcia played just one offensive series into the second quarter, but much of the starting offensive line stayed in the game until after halftime. However, tackle Donald Penn got a long look at right tackle with the first team, replacing Jeremy Trueblood on the Bucs' second possession.
Penn is now the starting left tackle opposite Trueblood, so that particular substitution won't happen again, but there will be other veterans who make early exits. Sometimes a young player is inserted into the game when most of the starters are still in action so the team can see how one of its reserves fares in a regular-season type atmosphere. This weekend, such a strategy will also give the young player a chance to compete against top-notch competition. The Jaguars were on of the last four teams standing in the AFC last January, and they have been hard on the Buccaneers in recent summers, winning four straight matchups between the two teams.
"Everybody projects them to be an outstanding team again this season," said Gruden, sounding as if he agreed. "They've got explosive weapons offensively; Garrard is coming into his own. They do have some injuries at receiver that have been well-documented. They're a very fast, explosive defensive team, well-coached. They were close to getting into the Super Bowl last year. It will be a great test for us, as it was the last two weeks."
A Wish Come True
On most mornings of a game week, the Buccaneers hold a shortened walk-through in preparation for the real thing in the afternoon. Because the players are moving at half speed, it almost looks as if they're just going through the motions.
Nothing was further from the truth for one of the Bucs' coaches on Thursday morning, however. For him, Thursday morning's practice was the biggest one of the week.
That coach was Michael Garrison, a 12-year-old who was granted his wish to be a football coach for the day thanks to the efforts of the Buccaneers and the Make-A-Wish Foundation of Central & Northern Florida, Suncoast Region.
The young Bucs fan, who suffers from a life-threatening condition known as dense granule deficiency, was greeted upon his arrival at Buccaneer headquarters with the words "Welcome Coach Michael" on the large television monitor in the lobby. Michael enjoyed a tour of the team's training facility with his mother, brothers and grandparents before being led to the practice fields to join in the team's walkthrough.
Garrison wasn't there just to watch. Moments after he arrived, Assistant to the Head Coach Paul Kelly signaled for the budding coach to join him on the field.
The young boy spent the entire walkthrough alongside Head Coach Jon Gruden, who gave the youngster his own copy of the play scripts while explaining the ins and outs of the team's formations. Throughout the session, Garrison shared his coaching insights with numerous Buccaneers, including running back Warrick Dunn and wide receiver Maurice Stovall. Garrison then brought the offensive unit together at the session's end and broke the huddle with a loud, "One, two three, Bucs!" cheer that could be heard across the field.
"He says he wants to be a coach, I tried to talk him out of it," Gruden joked following the team's afternoon practice. "He's a great kid and we're really happy to have him be a part of our team."
The morning's visit concluded with lunch in the team's dining hall, where he sat at a table full of players, including Kevin Carter, Chris Hovan, Ryan Nece, Matt Bryant, Andrew Economos, and Sammy Davis. During lunch, Garrison was greeted by numerous other players as well, including Jeff Garcia and Derrick Brooks.
The morning's events proved to be a memorable experience for all.
"He's been upset lately that he couldn't play football and ever since the disorder, he's been bummed about it," Deana Garrison, Michael's mother, said. "Seeing him out there with Coach Gruden today – it was fun for him and it was fun to watch him. He'll be talking about this for a long time I'm sure."
Garrison's wish will be granted in another way on Saturday, when he attends the Bucs' preseason contest versus the Jacksonville Jaguars. He and his family will have pregame passes to watch the team warm up from the sideline.
"Hopefully he gets a chance to be a big part of the game, too, on Saturday night," Gruden said.
More from Coach Gruden
After ramping up his practice participation on Tuesday and Wednesday, wide receiver Joey Galloway went back to being a spectator on Thursday, but this time his absence was planned. The Bucs staff liked what it saw from Galloway this week and, though he isn't likely to play on Saturday, he is expected to be cleared for full participation in next Monday's practice.
Gruden revealed that bit of good news after practice on Thursday. He also touched on several other subjects.
On if success makes roster moves more difficult: "Well, it makes it hard if guys are all playing well. You'd rather have some competition that's legitimate. You'd like to have some tough decisions instead of going to look elsewhere. We're continuing to look on other teams' rosters for players that they release.
On the quarterback rotation for Saturday night: "We said we were going to make that announcement Saturday at the stadium. He practiced a lot, he got some good turns today and we're pleased with that. We'll announce who's starting when we get to the stadium."
On if the team might be looking at starting the season with Brian Griese or Luke McCown in the lineup: "I wouldn't say that. We're fully expecting Garcia to be ready. He's getting his work, getting back into it, and I'll leave it at that."
On if Jeremy Zuttah is where the Bucs would like him to be: "Well, you know, he's a rookie and he's doing an excellent job. We'll have to see. That's why we have the preseason. He's in a tough spot. Arron Sears was in a tough spot. Davin [Joseph] and Trueblood, all those guys have been in a tough spot. We are encouraged by the things he's doing. We're confident in him, but John Henderson's a confident player, indeed, for the Jaguars. So he'll have his hands full Saturday night, but at the same time we are pleased with what he's doing."
On what they need to see from Jeff Garcia to know he's ready to play in the regular season: "Well, we see him on the practice field. We base a lot of our decisions on what we see on the practice field. He didn't play much at all in the preseason last year. There are a lot of players in the league that have been idle throughout the preseason. You can write them down; it's a startling number of guys, to be honest with you. We're going to try to get Jeff a lot of work on the practice field, and in the time being Griese and Luke have done a heck of a job taking advantage of their turns, so we consider the position to be a strength of ours and we're happy with it right now. Jeff doesn't need to go out there and play three quarters to get ready. He just needs to get behind the wheel, I think, and re-acclimated to the speed of the game and we'll try to do that."
On how Byron Storer has looked: "Excellent. Excellent. I just like everything he's doing. I like the way he's blocking, I like the way he's finishing, I like the aggressiveness with which he plays. I like everything he's doing to be honest with you."
On Storer not being afraid to hit players: "No, not in those first two games. When you play against the 3-4 defense, you're going to get some isolations in the hole with big-time NFL linemen. They don't play the 3-4 defense with little linebackers. [Channing] Crowder is about as big a linebacker as I've ever seen. [Tedy] Bruschi and [Jerod] Mayo, those are two outstanding inside linebackers. You've got to kick out the edge sometimes and you've all seen [Mike] Vrabel. Hell, [Matt] Roth was a defensive end last year. He's willing, able and he's getting a lot better."