There is no bad time for a bye week in the NFL, at least from a team's perspective. Fans (and fantasy football players) would obviously like to see their teams (or their fantasy players) active every Sunday.
Later bye weeks are generally considered more favorable when the schedule comes out in April, if only because more games played before the bye means more chances for players to collect sprains and bruises. However, one never knows at what point in the season the injury bug is going to strike most harshly.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 2011 bye week seems particularly well-timed, as it turns out. A rash of injuries over the past three weeks had the Buccaneers finishing their London game on Sunday with no less than seven starters on the sideline: left guard Jeremy Zuttah, center Jeff Faine, running back LeGarrette Blount, fullback Earnest Graham, defenisve tackle Gerald McCoy, middle linebacker Mason Foster and free safety Tanard Jackson.
Fortunately, those seven plus a few other banged-up Bucs won't have to get ready for another game this Sunday. The NFL always schedules a bye week immediately following a trip overseas to play in the International Series game at Wembley Stadium, so there will be no concerns about lingering jet lag or lost preparation time due to travel, either. And if any otherwise healthy players simply need a little mental break from the team's up-and-down last few weeks, the bye provides that as well.
"It gives our team a chance to kind of regroup, mentally and physically," said tight end Luke Stocker. "All these guys are nicked up and banged up halfway through the season. I think halfway through the season is probably a good point for it. The NFL's a really long season, so it's a good point for everybody to regroup and get back at it."
Stocker would know. He returned to the lineup on Sunday against the Chicago Bears after missing the previous two contests with a knee injury. He likely would not have been in danger of missing the game had the Bucs been scheduled to play this coming weekend, but now he has the luxury of added rest and rehab and a better chance to be 100% healthy by the time the Bucs play the New Orleans Saints in Week Nine.
"I'm close, I'm very close," said Stocker. "My knee's still a little sore but it's getting there. I think this week I'll probably be back to full-go."
Head Coach Raheem Morris thinks many of the team's injured starters are also close to returning, or that they will be after resting for five straight days. Morris held a light 90-minute practice on Wednesday morning, but that was all he had on the schedule for his charges before sending them off for a very long weekend.
In fact, Morris can at least hope that all seven of the aforementioned starters will be available when the Bucs play the Saints in the Superdome on November 6.
"I'm hoping so," he said. "I can't guarantee that. There are a bunch of those guys that I know will be ready, and some of those guys are a lot better than I thought because you thought it was week-to-week and now it's looking day-to-day. It's going to become a toughness issue for some of those guys and we'll see where they are. It's also a protection issue, protecting the team versus itself a little bit. I've got a bunch of tough guys and they want to go out there right away."
Two of those players who looked better on Wednesday than Morris had expected after Sunday's hard-hitting game were Jackson and Zuttah. Jackson sustained a hamstring injury while returning an interception in the first quarter against the Bears, and Zuttah went down with a knee injury in the third period.
"Zuttah is a lot better than we thought," said Morris. "I don't know if he's week-to-week anymore; I think he's day-to-day. Tanard is a lot better than we thought. He's a tough guy so I know it's going to be hard to keep him off, but that's why we have to check him too to protect him from himself a little bit."
Foster technically has not missed a game yet this season, but he's left each of the last three contests early with ankle issues. He tweaked his left and right ankles, successively, in Weeks Five and Six, and then aggravated one of the existing injuries early in last Sunday's game. Foster has certainly been trying to fight through his ankle issues, but an added week of rest might get him past the problem and allow him to start the Saints game without any lingering problems.
"Mason Foster, I feel good about that, having a week off," said Morris. "He's been absolutely trying to tough it out the last two weeks. He went out there last week and could have had the ability to play. I kind of pulled him early. I didn't like the way he was moving on one play…and I could have been wrong actually. You go back and look at it on tape and he's waiting for somebody to turn back to him and he didn't turn back. He wasn't able to look quick enough right there so I took him out and put in [Adam] Hayward, who played very well."
Wide receiver Sammie Stroughter, who hurt his foot on the Bucs' season-opening kickoff return and subsequently had surgery, was able to return to the practice field last week in the United Kingdom. He didn't play in the game at Wembley, but that activity and two more weeks to work on it could have him back in the mix by the Saints game, too. Blount ran on the sidelines at the team's Pennyhill Park accommodations and looked to Morris like a very good bet to return against the Saints, especially after the added edge of another week off.
Others like Faine (biceps), McCoy (ankle) and fullback Erik Lorig (shoulder) will try to take advantage of the same rest period. Morris enters that down time optimistic about what he'll see on the other side.
"I'm looking forward to getting Faine back, I'm looking forward to getting Erik Lorig back, I'm looking forward to getting McCoy back," said the coach. "We'll get them healthy in this bye. We'll get some guys coming out of the cold tub ready to deal. I can't wait to get those guys back."
Most players do look forward to the bye week, given how many aches one can accumulate during a 16-game season. But given the youth and exuberance that permeates the Bucs' roster, it's likely that an extended absence from the field is only going to make their hearts grow fonder for the next nine games. A little rest and relaxation will serve them well, but they should be fired up to get back to work next week.
"[I'm] just really [going to] relax," said quarterback Josh Freeman. "Coming off that loss in London, you maybe want to distance yourself from football a little bit. We're 4-3, we're excited. We're still a half-game back in our division. We've got a huge game coming up next week and we just want to be rested, mentally and physically, and be ready to come back in and get a good week of preparation in next week."