WR Ike Hilliard may play a more prominent role on Sunday if Michael Clayton is unable to go
Winning is fun.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers certainly had a lot more fun during their 4-0 start than they did over the last two, unsuccessful weekends. So how much fun will the second half of the season be for the 5-3, playoff-hungry Buccaneers?
As much fun as they make it, says Head Coach Jon Gruden.
Switching the chicken and the egg, Gruden is telling his men to enjoy what they're doing on the field, and the wins will come.
"You have moments in this league when you're going to be tested," said Gruden, who like any NFL coach has seen his share of such moments. "I try to explain that to them. Play one game at a time. Have fun playing, man. Just let it go. Let it go and play."
Few NFL seasons hit the midway point with no adversity. The 8-0 Indianapolis Colts might be worry-free at the moment, but every other team (and truthfully, probably the Colts, too) is dealing with something. In Tampa, some of the big ones are the loss of quarterback Brian Griese, a running game that has stalled and, now, a knee injury to wide receiver Michael Clayton.
And every coach tells his team to deal with adversity the same way: We're going to the next guy on the depth chart, and he simply has to step up.
Already the Bucs have received some enormous contributions from newcomers, including a trio of rookie starters. Griese's injury has thrust third-year man Chris Simms into the spotlight. And now the possible absence of Clayton this weekend will draw on some new resources.
To those new contributors, young and old, Gruden says 'Have fun and go get 'em.'
"Some of these guys, I have to remind them now, are really doing great," he said. "I've been doing this 15 years and I haven't had a tight end come in here and do what Alex Smith has done. I've been doing this for 15 years and I haven't had a running back come in and have three games – nor did the NFL in the history of the league – doing what Cadillac Williams did. Dan Buenning, what he's done in the first eight weeks is pretty damn good. I'm excited about that. What Anthony Davis has done, the toughness and the grit that he has shown. 'Some of you other guys now, you're being thrust into very, very prominent positions. The quarterback. Edell Shepherd now. Some of you others, do something with it. Let it go and do something with it.'"
Clayton, as expected, sat out his second straight practice on Thursday, trying to recover from a deep bruise to his right knee, suffered on a hard collision with the turf on Sunday. Gruden said on Wednesday that Clayton could not have played had the game been that day. There was no update on the receiver's status on Thursday.
In fact, all four players on the Bucs' injury report held their status from the day before, though running back Michael Pittman returned to practice in a limited capacity. Pittman remains questionable with a shoulder injury. Safety Dexter Jackson, who has missed the last two games with a hamstring ailment, did some work on the practice field Thursday but is also still considered questionable.
Davis, the starting left tackle, did practice on Thursday, as Gruden had predicted. Despite what appeared to be a significant knee injury on Sunday, Davis has recovered quickly and is probable to play and start against Washington.
If Clayton can't play, veteran receiver Ike Hilliard would take his place in the starting lineup. As the Bucs' third receiver this year, the sure-handed Hilliard has caught 17 passes for 114 yards.
"[Hilliard] will be stepping up for us," said Gruden. "Ike [would] start and Edell Shepherd would obviously be part of the package, also."
Will Allen has already filled in nicely for Jackson at the starting free safety spot, and for Jermaine Phillips at strong safety before that. If Pittman is unable to go, second-year man Earnest Graham might see his touches increase. That's the way it is in the NFL. Injuries are, unfortunately, common and backups are transformed instantly into starters. Often it works; sometimes it doesn't. The Bucs, who can look around at some very impressive contributions from new starters, are confident it will work for them and that this weekend's game and the second half of the season will be fun.
"I don't think we're lacking for confidence," said Gruden. "I think we're certainly having some growing pains. We've played one half of the season and there have been some really good bright spots. There have been some things that we glaringly need to fix around here, and we'll try to do that."