Head Coach Jon Gruden is keeping his team focused on the realities of practice rather than the what-ifs of playoff-watching
The Bucs are trying to ignore the big picture of the NFL's playoff scenarios and concentrate fully on the Falcons…Plus (shhh) more playoff scenarios and a practice squad change
Week 16 performances by Atlanta, Carolina, Dallas, Washington, Chicago, Minnesota and the New York Giants could affect the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 2005 playoff position, but only one of the teams on that list will be joining the Bucs in Raymond James Stadium on Saturday.
Thus, while the NFC postseason race is still surprisingly wide – three teams too wide to fit through the funnel they're all being forced into – the Buccaneers' focus is still extremely narrow here in the closing days. Head Coach Jon Gruden wants his team's attention aimed directly at the very serious challenge of beating Michael Vick and the Falcons.
"We try not to put up all the playoff scenarios," said Gruden, who took his team through their first practice of the week on Tuesday afternoon. "We just try to play a small hand here and deal with what we have to deal with here, which is practice, installation. It's not about duplicating the intensity that we played with earlier in the year, it's about exceeding that. This is the time of year where you have to be at your very best no matter how you feel. I think our players understand that, no matter how young or how old they are."
The question of the Bucs' youth has been coming up with increasing frequency as December has grown older. The Bucs are particularly young on offense, where they have, basically, first-time starters at left tackle, left guard, right guard, quarterback, tight end and running back.
One of those new starters, tailback Cadillac Williams, is clearly going to be a key figure in the Bucs' playoff run. He has been at the center of most of the team's strong ground-game days, and Tampa Bay is 7-1 when it can rush for at least 100 yards. A year ago, however, Williams' fabulous senior season at Auburn was almost over, as the Tigers were in the middle of a month-long wait for their bowl game.
But Williams doesn't appear to be hitting a rookie wall – he had averaged 102 yards over the four games that preceded the Bucs' stumble in Foxborough last Saturday – and he also is taking an approach to this penultimate game that would please his coaches.
"One difference is the long season," said Williams. "It's a much longer season than college. There's a lot more grind. You've got to be mentally strong to play on this level. I'm not really thinking about the playoffs and things like that. We're thinking about Atlanta and getting this win. We feel like if we get this win everything else will take care of itself."
Of course, the Bucs will be playing at the same time that Dallas visits Carolina and the Giants take on Washington Saturday, and they can watch Chicago and Minnesota play their respective games on Christmas Day, so it would be a stretch to claim that there will be no scoreboard watching. It's not like Gruden is going to put blinders on his horses.
"Well, if you have a lottery ticket you have a chance to win the lottery," said the coach. "So you're going to watch the lottery to see if you win.
"Common sense tells you that we're excited to be in the race. We also realize that we've got to take care of our jobs. We've got to do our stuff. We've got to find a way to win another game. And Atlanta is the defending South champion. They are a heck of a football team. I think we're really looking forward to playing, and we'll see what happens."
The Bucs' first day of practice was, like the week before Wednesday's schedule transposed onto Tuesday. The Bucs will have another two-hour afternoon workout on Wednesday (like a Thursday) and a 90-minute review session on Thursday (like a Friday).
No injury report was due to the NFL on Tuesday, but Gruden gave a brief wrap up on the players who are battling minor ailments..
"Anthony Becht has a sore ankle; he's questionable for the game," said Gruden. "We're confident he'll play but [recently re-signed] Will Heller brings us some experience and he's a good player. Kenyatta Walker [shoulder] did not practice with the team but he's making progress. Anthony McFarland [hamstring] is getting better. He's still questionable for the game. Marquis Cooper [chest] looks like he could be ready for this one."
Shhh…More Playoff Scenarios
The National Football League sent out a revised list of official playoff scenarios on Tuesday, and there were some notable changes to the Buccaneers' section of the list. That may not be of much concern to Tampa Bay players and coaches, but the rest of us can't be blamed for taking a peek.
No need to panic, Buc fans. The scenarios reported by Buccaneers.com early on Tuesday still exist. In a nutshell, a Tampa Bay victory and losses by any two of three teams – Dallas, Minnesota and Washington – will clinch a playoff spot for the Bucs.
No, the league's new list of scenarios had added possibilities for the Buccaneers. Here is the updated Buccaneer section, with the additional scenarios in bold.
Tampa Bay can clinch playoff berth with:
1) TB win DAL loss or tie WAS loss or tie, OR 2) TB win DAL loss or tie MIN loss or tie, OR 3) TB win WAS loss or tie MIN loss or tie, OR 4) TB win DAL loss or tie CHI win or tie, OR 5) TB win WAS loss or tie CHI win or tie.
The two additional scenarios boil down to this: One Buccaneer win makes it impossible for Minnesota to beat Tampa Bay in a Wild Card tiebreaker.
Minnesota could still get into the playoffs and indirectly eliminate the Buccaneers, even after a Tampa Bay win, but to do so they would have to win the NFC North. If the Vikings win their last two games and the Bears lose their last two games, Minnesota will steal the North from Chicago, pushing the Bears into the Wild Card picture. And the Bears in that scenario, could still beat the Buccaneers in a tiebreaker.
Thus, a Chicago win on Sunday (the Bears play at Green Bay on Christmas Day) would clinch the division and put Minnesota exclusively into the Wild Card battle.
If the Buccaneers win on Saturday and Dallas loses at Carolina or Washington loses to the Giants, Tampa Bay will go to bed on Christmas Eve with the possibility of getting a nice gift the next afternoon. In that scenario, a Bears win would punch the Bucs ticket while they enjoy a day off.
There is a best-case scenario for the Buccaneers, which we can express using the NFL's playoff-picture math:
TB win WAS loss DAL win CHI win.
If those four games go according to the formula, the Bucs would not only clinch a playoff spot but they would have the NFC South title back in their own hands. If those four outcomes went the Bucs way, they would go into the final weekend needing only to beat New Orleans at home to win the division, regardless of Carolina's final-weekend fate in Atlanta
Practice Squad Switch
The Buccaneers move to re-sign tight end Will Heller on Tuesday also led to a pair of moves on the practice squad.
Now that the Bucs have four tight ends on the active roster (Heller plus Anthony Becht, Alex Smith and Dave Moore), they have chosen to release TE Steven Farmer from the practice squad. The open spot on that eight-man unit was used to re-sign rookie guard Jonathan Clinkscale.
Clinkscale, an undrafted free agent out of Wisconsin, was with the Bucs through training camp but was released on September 3 when the team made its final cut down to 53 players. He played in all four preseason games as a reserve at both guard spots. After leaving the Bucs, Clinkscale signed with Cincinnati's practice squad on September 13 and remained on that unit through October 21.
At Wisconsin, Clinkscale joined rookie Buccaneer guard Dan Buenning as one of the top guard tandems in the nation. He played in 50 games over four years, with 44 starts.
The Bucs signed Farmer to the practice squad on December 7.