Head Coach Jon Gruden knows every team is dealing with injuries but still wishes he could field a full practice
Even though the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Atlanta Falcons – foes this weekend at Raymond James Stadium – met as recently as November 14, that feels like ancient history to Bucs Head Coach Jon Gruden. And he may have a point.
It was less than three weeks ago, but when the Bucs last battled the Falcons, losing 24-14 after nearly rallying from a 17-0 deficit, their placekicker was the proven but struggling Martin Gramatica. Their center was a second-year player making his first career start. Their red-hot quarterback was completely healthy, at least until the end of that brutal contest. The season was just passing its halfway point. And the venue was Atlanta's Georgia Dome.
This is the same rivalry with the same focal point – Michael Vick vs. the Bucs' aggressive defense – but the two games don't have much in common. Tampa Bay, which began practicing for the Falcons on Wednesday afternoon, has a new set of worries to deal with before the rematch, as surely must Atlanta.
"It seems like years ago that we played these guys," said Gruden. "We've had plenty of time to game-plan the Falcons, get our team ready. I don't mind. I don't really care what the schedule is."
What does threaten Gruden's tranquility is running a practice without several key players on the field. Gruden doesn't blame quarterback Brian Griese, center Sean Mahan, wide receiver Joey Galloway or defensive lineman Dewayne White for missing the workout due to nagging injuries – getting those players healthy enough to play on Sunday is the most important task – but he does wish he could prepare with all the pieces intact. Not being able to do so is a fact of life in the NFL, at pretty much every team headquarters, especially late in the season.
"It grates on me, okay?" said Gruden. "Players make all your plans come to life. When they're not out there, it's sometimes a grind to get through it. But we've got to overcome it just like any team in this league."
Fortunately, Griese (hip), Mahan (shoulder), Galloway (ankle) and White (calf) are all considered probable for Sunday's game, as stated by the team's first official injury report of the week. Only safety Jermaine Phillips, who had surgery to repair a forearm fracture and has missed the last two games, has been ruled out.
In addition, the Bucs have a possible reinforcement on the roster, at least in Mahan's crew. With Mahan struggling with a stinger, starting left guard Matt Stinchcomb could slide over to center, opening up that guard spot. Veteran guard Matt O'Dwyer was just activated from the reserve/PUP list on Tuesday, but he has three weeks of practice under his belt and could be an option for action on Sunday if the Bucs can work their eight-man inactive list just right.
"He's been playing for a couple weeks," said Gruden. "We've struggled with the game-day active number of linemen; we've only had seven just about every game. Mahan's health will determined where we go there. But he's had four weeks to get ready. He's played a lot of football in his career. We'll have to decide late in the week."
One player who will definitely suit up on Sunday – for the first time ever in a regular-season NFL game – is kicker Jay Taylor. Taylor, who previously spent a week on the Bucs' practice squad before the first Atlanta game, was re-signed to the active roster on Tuesday when the team cut Martin Gramatica.
Taylor steps into a playoff race that sees the Bucs grasping at their last opportunities. He could be called on to make a clutch kick very early in his NFL career. Obviously, then, his debut on the practice field was a thing of great interest on Wednesday. So far, Taylor does not seem particularly affected by the pressure.
"I give him credit for coming in here, being watched by everybody today – a lot of people looking forward to seeing who this guy is – and standing in there and knocking them through," said Gruden. "He looked good. He made all his kicks and his kickoffs were good. He looked very good."
Before his release, Gramatica's struggles had become pretty severe, and the Bucs had only found success on four of 12 tries this season from 30 yards or farther. The team hopes Taylor can provide more range and expand the possible scoring territory.
"He was six-for-six from 44 yards today, which was a pretty good statement as to what his range is," said Gruden. "It looks like he's got very good range. We'll get to know him more, personal and up-close, in the next few days, but his first day here was a pretty good one."
Practice Squad Maneuvers
The Buccaneers tweaked their practice squad roster again on Wednesday to address a couple short spots on the active roster.
Rookie guard Jason Nerys, formerly of the New York Jets, was signed to the eight-man practice squad. The Bucs may be without an interior lineman this week as starting center Sean Mahan is recovering from a shoulder injury and will be limited on the practice field. Starting left guard Matt Stinchcomb will likely take the first-team snaps at center.
And rookie wide receiver Kevin Youngblood, who spent one week on the Bucs' practice squad in mid-October, was re-signed. Tampa Bay may also be without wide receiver Joey Galloway on the practice field this week thanks to an ankle injury.
To make room for Nerys and Youngblood, the Bucs released two players from the practice squad: safety Kentrell Curry and running back Sultan McCullough. Both Curry and McCullough had spent two weeks on the squad after being signed on November 17.
Nerys first entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent with the Jets last April. He played in all four preseason games and spent the first three weeks of the season on the Jets' practice squad before being released. At Delaware, he was a team co-captain and a consensus All-America choice for a Blue Hens squad that captured the NCAA Division I-AA National Championship.
Youngblood also came into the league as an undrafted free agent this spring, picked up by the Atlanta Falcons in April but released in June. At Clemson, he finished with career marks of 142 catches for 1,713 yards and six touchdowns.
Practice squad players are allowed to participate in all meetings and workouts during the week but are not eligible to play in games unless they are first promoted to the active roster. Several players have already made that move up to the 53-man roster this year after starting on the practice squad, including defensive end Corey Smith, running back Earnest Graham, defensive tackle Jon Bradley and, most recently, running back Ian Smart.
Griese, whose consistently excellent play over the last two months has helped Tampa Bay win four of its last seven, knows the Bucs are in a tight spot in the playoff race, thanks to those three other games that just got away.
In many years, a 4-7 record would be cause to write off the postseason, but the unusual developments of the 2004 season have the Bucs just a game out of the last playoff spot, albeit tied with six other teams. If the season ended today, a sub-.500 team (either New York or St. Louis) would be in the NFC playoff field.
Right or not, the last three or four games have all felt like 'must-win' situations to the Buccaneers. Yet, somehow, the brass ring remains there in front of them every Monday, win or lose.
"It is surprising," admitted Griese. "But in this day and age, with free agency and the parity in the league, this is what they wanted. It is what it is. We're going to take our chances and try to come out and get back in the race."
What the Bucs' losses have done is remove virtually any margin for error; it would be hard to imagine Tampa Bay in the playoffs with a record any worse than 9-7, and that might not even be enough.
For now, the Bucs are still alive, and they're going to approach this weekend's game against division-leading Atlanta as if the playoff spot is there's to lose.
"We're a 4-7 football team and we understand that we still have a chance," said Griese. "However small that chance might be, it's a chance nonetheless. Nobody takes that lightly around here. I know that I don't. I'm excited to go out and get this game."
And from the just-because-it's-out-there department, Gruden's rather unequivocal response to the rumor that he is a candidate for the suddenly vacant Notre Dame head coaching job:
"I love Notre Dame. I went to high school there. My dad coached Joe Montana and Vagas Ferguson there. I'm not a candidate for that job. I've got the best job in football and I've got to work hard to keep it. I wish Notre Dame well, I'll always be a big fan, but I guarantee I'm no candidate for that job."