Veteran WR Karl Williams is a proven kick return man...he could inherit those jobs on Sunday in Dallas
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers held a 90-minute practice on Friday afternoon, concluding three days of field work in preparation for the season opener in Dallas on Sunday. An hour later, most of the players were off the premises, not needed back until a walk-through on Saturday morning.
In the player personnel department, however, magnets bearing the players' names were still in action, sliding around the team board as the Bucs' brain trust contemplated the state of the roster. With game time less than 48 hours away, the need to address certain depth issues was at hand.
After practice on Friday, Head Coach Tony Dungy confirmed that starting center Jeff Christy's chances of playing in Texas Stadium on Sunday are 'highly, highly doubtful.'
Said Dungy: "We haven't ruled out heavenly miracles, but that's about what it would take."
Thus, it appears that the Bucs are thin on the interior offensive line, where there are no healthy, regular backups to center or either guard spot, thanks to Christy's injury and rookie guard Russ Hochstein's foot fracture. In practice, backup tackle DeMarcus Curry has played a few series at left guard and practice squad players Eric Thomas and Leon Hires have helped pick up the extra snaps. Thomas and Hires are not eligible to play in the game Sunday as long as they remain on the practice squad.
If the Buccaneers make a move involving the active roster, to address concerns here or elsewhere on the depth chart, they would have to do so by 4:00 p.m. EDT on Sunday. Rosters are frozen for the weekend after that point. Tampa Bay could also make any necessary moves on Friday.
In either case, the Bucs have waited until the end of the week for two reasons. First, every additional day provides hope that an injured player can return to action. Second, any move involving the active roster would expose one of the current 53 Bucs to the waiver wire, which teams are never eager to do.
"Obviously, you don't want to do that if you don't have to," said Dungy. "That's why we're going to wait and hope that, even if we don't expect them to play, the (injured) guys can at least be emergency guys so you don't have to expose guys to the waiver wire. But if we have to, we will."
The Bucs could get some relief on a banged up defensive-tackle squad if rookie Ellis Wyms is available to play on Sunday. Wyms did not practice on Friday but did go through roughly half of the workout on Thursday. He's considered questionable on the injury report.
"(He) will be a game-time decision," said Dungy. "We're going to let him run on Sunday morning and see how he is. Hopefully, he'll be able to play. He did enough yesterday that were hopeful he'll be ready to go."
When Clyde Christensen stares down from the coaches' booth on Sunday, preparing to call his first game as an NFL offensive coordinator, he'll see something he recognizes.
The Cowboys' defense, which ranked 19th in the league last year and dead last against the run, has a bit of a different look this season, but not one that will be foreign to the Buccaneers. Dallas, in fact, has adopted some of the characteristics of the base 'cover two' defense that Tampa Bay employs.
According to Christensen, who has been working his unit against the Bucs' cover two for months, Dallas is playing very sound defense this summer, forcing teams to use a lot of plays to go downfield. Dungy has seen the difference, too.
"They have changed," said Dungy. "They're playing some different coverages than they played before. They lost Leon Lett and Chad Hennings and they're going with smaller guys that are more active. They're doing a lot more in terms of moving those guys than they have in the past."
And they have adopted the same focus the Bucs put on avoiding the fast strike.
"They've really focused on not giving up big plays, and in the preseason they did not give up many," said Dungy.
While the team decides whether or not to make a roster move, one Friday ritual will no longer get in the way. Making a slight adjustment to the 53-man, eight-inactive roster system that has been in place since 1991, the league will no longer require four inactives to be named on Friday.
Previously, each team would be required to reduce to 49 active players two days before a game, then down to 45 (plus an inactive but eligible third quarterback) on game day, 90 minutes before kickoff. Now, all eight inactives will be named on the day of the game.
"It's a rule whose time had come," said Buccaneers General Manager Rich McKay, noting that the four-and-four system had originally been agreed upon in order to make team travel a little easier. After debating the issue for years, it was decided this season that competition issues would take precedence over travel ease.
"It wasn't necessarily related to the competitive aspects of the game," said McKay. "In order to give teams more flexibility, we decided we would allow the deactivations to occur on Sunday."
Dungy approved of the change, noting that his team's current rash of injuries makes it difficult to know which players will be healthy by Sunday.
"It makes it a lot easier," said Dungy of the rule change. "Decisions like Ellis Wyms and Dwight Smith, normally you'd have to make them today. Now we don't have to make them until Sunday, which gives us an extra 48 hours to see if a guy is healthy. I think it's going to be better for the game."
In 1998, the Buccaneers opened the season at Minnesota and, following the old method, deactivated four players the Friday before. Among those four was reserve offensive lineman Todd Washington. On the morning of the game, starting right tackle Jason Odom awoke with a severe case of the flu and a migraine headache. He was unable to play and the Bucs were left dangerously thin on the offensive line. Had the new system been in place, the team would not have deactivated Washington.
The inactive decisions almost always affect game decisions in some manner or another. For instance, this week, the team may or may not choose to keep fifth and sixth receivers Frank Murphy and Milton Wynn on the 45-man active list. If Murphy is not active, that will be one less option on punt and kickoff returns.
Dungy indicated on Friday that veteran receiver Karl Williams is the likely choice for both jobs, but delayed a full decision until those inactive decisions are made on Sunday.
"We'd like to get one guy and stick with him," said Dungy. "My sense is that it would probably Karl Williams on most things, but we'll see."