The big news surrounding the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this week is, like the hottest movie in the land, the departed. Head Coach Jon Gruden had a different matinee viewing lined up for Wednesday afternoon, however.
The Bucs' hot story, of course, is the trade of defensive tackle Anthony McFarland to the Indianapolis Colts for a 2007 second-round draft choice. But, while Gruden made a point of wishing the eight-year Buc well in his new NFL home, he was more interested in who was on the field for Tampa Bay Wednesday afternoon. And that included two new men and one new starter.
The Bucs began preparations for the Philadelphia Eagles on Wednesday with a two-hour workout on a surprisingly steamy afternoon. Included in the drills were cornerback Phillip Buchanon, signed on Tuesday, and defensive tackle Jon Bradley, brought back into the fold on Wednesday. Included in the first-team defensive line was sixth-year man Ellis Wyms, the new starter at under tackle, the position made famous for the Buccaneers by Warren Sapp.
Buchanon and Bradley may need some time before they are heavily involved in the defense. Wyms, however, is on center stage right now.
"We think he's a very good football player, obviously," said Gruden. "He'll be our starting under tackle. Ellis Wyms has his time now and we think he can be an outstanding player. He played great last week and hopefully he can continue to do that."
Wyms has just one career start, but he has long been the team's most active reserve lineman, first as a valuable end/tackle swingman and more recently as a pass-rushing force on the inside. Seeing his largest chunk of playing time this season against Cincinnati on Sunday, Wyms recorded both of the Bucs' sacks of Carson Palmer, including one that essentially killed the Bengals' last scoring opportunity.
Wyms said he hasn't been bothered by his long run as a reserve, a claim strengthened by his consistently strong play.
"No, not really because I'm really not that type of a guy," he said. "Everybody wants the opportunity to start, wants the opportunity to shine, but more than anything we want to win here. We want the defense to play well, and I've just played my role the past several years just like I am going to do this weekend. I've got a role to play Sunday, and hopefully I'm going to come out and do a good job."
The Bucs know what to expect from Wyms and even Bradley, who played in 13 games for Tampa Bay last season and who, according to Gruden, had a good 2006 training camp. However, Wednesday's workout provided the coaching staff with its first up-close look at Buchanon, who split his first four-plus seasons between Oakland and Tennessee.
"He's an interesting guy," said Gruden. "He's scored a lot of touchdowns; he's got seven touchdowns in his young career. He's a flashy playmaker, he's extremely quick. [He is] a guy who has punt return ability. And we think he can be a very good corner. We're anxious to put him into the lab and see what we can find out, because he is a talented guy."
Buchanon's seven touchdowns have been almost evenly split between defense and special teams – four on interception returns, three on punt returns. He had four in one season for Oakland, finding the end zone twice each on interceptions and punt returns in 2003. The Raiders, who selected Buchanon 17th overall in the 2002 draft, traded him to Houston after the 2004 season for second and third-round picks. Houston released him on Tuesday after he played in just 14 games as a Texan.
"There are a lot of guys in the league who for whatever reason don't fit where they are," said Gruden of Buchanon's unfulfilling stint in Houston. "He was a high draft pick, he was traded to Houston, a very sought-after player by the Texans. They gave up a lot to get him. So we're anxious to get to work here. We're not going to make any predictions. He's a young guy with talent. Here he is and we'll see what happens."
Another Lengthy Injury Report
For the second straight week, the Buccaneers' official injury report runs into double digits; this time, however, the opponents have one of matching length.
The Bucs have 11 men on their report, including eight who are considered questionable or worse. Quarterback Chris Simms, still just a few weeks removed from his splenectomy, is obviously still out. Of the eight questionable players, Gruden seemed most concerned about tight end Anthony Becht (foot), cornerback Juran Bolden (hip) and wide receiver Mark Jones (hamstring). Those three plus defensive end Simeon Rice (shoulder) were held out of the full-team portions of practice on Wednesday.
Brian Kelly did participate in some portion of practice on Wednesday, though on Monday Gruden was not optimistic about the cornerback's availability for the Philadelphia game. Kelly is dealing with a nagging turf-toe injury that has forced him to miss three of the Bucs' first five games, including last Sunday's win over Cincinnati. He is listed as questionable on the team's injury report.
"I'm doing okay," said Kelly after practice, though he called surgery on his foot 'inevitable.' "I am going out there to see how it feels and see how it goes, and play it by ear."
Linebacker Shelton Quarles (knee) and wide receiver Maurice Stovall (back) were also listed as questionable. Of the full seven questionable players, Jones, Kelly and Stovall did not play in the Cincinnati game.
The Eagles actually have 14 players on their injury report, but all but five of them are considered probable to play. The least likely to suit up on Sunday is cornerback Roderick Hood, who is doubtful with a heel injury. The Eagles' four questionable players are linebacker Shawn Barber, defensive end Darren Howard, wide receiver Donte' Stallworth and tackle Tra Thomas; Howard, Stallworth and Thomas are all listed as starters. None of those five players participated in the full-team portions of Philadelphia's practice on Wednesday.
Quarterback Luke McCown does not appear on the Bucs' injury report because he is not currently on the 53-man roster. His health will be a matter of much scrutiny in the coming days, however, as the Bucs have a 21-day window to decide how to proceed with his roster status. After spending the first six weeks of the season on the physically unable to perform list, McCown is now eligible to return to the active roster, but the Bucs have up to three weeks to test him on the practice field first.
That first test came on Wednesday afternoon, the first time McCown has practiced with the rest of the team since mid-June. It went well.
"He did a good job today," said Gruden. "It was his first time out and he looked athletic, as we remember him. It looks like he's close to making a full recovery but we'll see how he feels in the morning and we'll kind of judge that day by day.
"We're in no hurry. We've got this 21-day window to look at him. That's the way the rules are. Once we feel like he's 100 percent ready to go, we'll make a move, make a decision."
Gruden, who served as the Eagles' offensive coordinator from 1995-97, concedes that this weekend's opponent has grown into one of his Buccaneers' most heated rivals. However, he points out, there aren't exactly a shortage of those at the moment.
"I don't know, Atlanta hates us, too," said Gruden with a laugh. "I think I felt that out there. Carolina wasn't real pleasant to us, neither was New Orleans. We've developed, I think, some [division] rivalries as the NFC South has taken shape."
As for the Philly rivalry, which really took off during a string of playoff games around the turn of the millennium, Gruden had an interesting take on that, as well. Of the 45 men who played for Tampa Bay the last time the Bucs and Eagles met, only nine are still on the team.
"There are a lot of guys who have been around in this series and remember the big games that these two teams have played," said Gruden. "But I asked our guys to raise their hands, who's played Philadelphia before, and we've got a lot of guys who've never played Philly. So we've got to temper that."