Louis Murphy was kept from the game of football for 358 days. The last few felt like an eternity.
"I couldn't sleep during the bye week," said Murphy. "I was resting all bye week, just itching for Monday to come. I didn't get too much sleep last night. I'm just glad to be back. I'm glad to be with my teammates, just glad to be back out there in the huddle."
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Murphy, who suffered a torn ACL in his right knee in a game at Washington on October 25 of last year, returned to the practice field on Monday, the first day he was eligible to do so. Surgery and a lengthy rehab process followed the injury, keeping him from practicing during the entire 2016 offseason and landing him on the physically unable to perform list at the start of training camp. When he was transferred to the reserve/PUP list in September it meant he had to remain out for at least the first six weeks of the season.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' just-concluded bye week was the end of that period, and the team began a 21-day window in which it can include Murphy in practice without having him count against the 53-man roster limit. He can be activated at any point during that window, which means that his return to game action could come as soon as this Sunday in San Francisco. Typically, players returning from PUP use more of that three-week period to get back into playing shape.
The Buccaneers' 53-Man roster.
Thus, Murphy's actual return to the lineup is still indeterminate, but he crossed the first hurdle by participating in practice on Monday, and the second by feeling no ill effects afterward.
"I feel great. I feel great, man, all thanks to God and to the training staff," said Murphy, specifically giving his thanks to Head Athletic Trainer Bobby Slater, and Assistant Trainers Scott 'Dutchy' DeGraff, Stan Delva, and John Ames. "They've been working with me for the last year, so to finally get out there and test it feels great.
"No real issues. We attacked rehab really hard. Those days where I felt like not pushing, they pushed me to the limit. I feel great. I can't really say anything else – I feel great, thanks to the training staff."
Murphy also sought out advice and encouragement from fellow NFL players who had returned from serious knee injuries, including Carolina linebacker Thomas Davis, Minnesota running back Adrian Peterson and Green Bay wide receiver Jordy Nelson. Murphy's peers admitted that the rehab process was difficult, mentally and physically, but assured him he could get through it.
"It was really tough," said Murphy. "I commend anyone who's ever come off an ACL [injury]. It's really tough and it tested me mentally. There were a couple days when me and Dutchy were in there and we're going back and forth and he's telling me to push through. I'm just glad to be back."
The Buccaneers' receiving corps could use some reinforcement, especially from a proven veteran who has played both outside positions as well as the slot during his eight-year NFL career. Lead wideout Mike Evans is among the league's receiving leaders and he has been ably complemented by Vincent Jackson and slot man Adam Humphries. Those three, however, have accounted for all but four of the 71 catches by Buccaneer wide receivers so far, and veteran Cecil Shorts is still completing a comeback from a Week Two hamstring injury.
Murphy has 162 career receptions, including 41 in 17 games as a Buccaneer in 2014 and 2015. The size of his role in the offense fluctuated during that season-and-a-half but he proved capable of producing like a starter when needed. For instance, he saw a significant amount of playing time during a three-game stretch early in 2014 when Evans was injured and contributed 16 catches for 206 yards and two touchdowns in that span. Murphy also had a 113-yard effort against Chicago later in the season.
"I just want to play my role, do what I can do. Everybody's going to do their job and I'm just going to do my job the best I can do it. That's pretty much it – be the leader that God's calling me to be and just helping where I can help out. The only thing I can control is going out there and working hard, practicing every day and giving the team all I've got."
Even after landing on PUP this summer, Murphy stayed involved with the team's day-to-day preparations. He has been a fixture at practices, taking "mental reps," and alternating his daily focus on the X, Z and F positions in the Bucs' offense. He likely will have no problem with his command of Dirk Koetter's offense when he returns to game action; if there was any mental complication it was anticipating how his knee would respond to that first bit of physical activity with his team. He took care of that on Monday.
"For sure, there's definitely a mental hurdle," said Murphy after practice. "I think that was today, getting in there, getting banged around, making some blocks, going against the defense, making some plays. It felt great. It felt like riding a bike."