DE Simeon Rice (97) has made many previous trips to Dallas but has a more optimistic feeling this year
On Sunday, while fielding questions concerning the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' final roster decisions, Head Coach Tony Dungy spoke of 'contingency plans.'
The issue was depth at several positions – nose tackle, center and guard, cornerback – where injuries and roster cuts had left the Bucs alarmingly thin. The target date for those plans was Wednesday, after further medical reports had clarified the status of such injured players as center Jeff Christy (knee), cornerback Dwight Smith (foot), defensive tackle James Cannida (knee), guard Russ Hochstein (foot) and DE/DT Ellis Wyms (foot).
As it turns out, none of those five practiced on Wednesday afternoon, and all five are listed on the Bucs' injury report as questionable or worse. And the early indications are that the contingency plans mostly involve getting other players ready to fill in at new positions. For instance, T DeMarcus Curry worked a little bit at guard on Wednesday, if for no other reason than to provide depth during practice.
"The other guys just have to be ready," said Dungy. "It involves some guys practicing at two positions, and they know they have to pick up the slack. Really, you just can't let it affect you. The guys that have to move or change positions, you just have to expect them to get the job done."
Dungy strongly doubts that using Curry at guard will be anything but a last resort, but the Bucs' active roster currently shows no healthy backups behind either guard positions (Cosey Coleman and Randall McDaniel) or center (Todd Washington).
"We've got a few things that we're looking at, that's why we worked a few guys at different positions," said Dungy. "DeMarcus Curry at guard would be an emergency measure, maybe something we'd have to do with a couple injuries in the game, if certain guys can't play. You don't want to dwell on that too much, you don't want to spend too much practice time on that, but you at least get guys familiar with what you have to do."
Christy, who on Monday was put on a preliminary injury report as 'out,' was upgraded to questionable on Wednesday, but Dungy didn't seem overly optimistic about his chances to start the season in Dallas. If Christy does miss the game, it would be an unusual absence for him. Christy has started 48 consecutive games and has missed only four due to injury over eight seasons.
"Right now it's not too promising for (Christy) playing this week," said Dungy.
Of course, when you throw in the five-man practice squad, which – no coincidence – includes a center, a guard, a cornerback, a defensive tackle and a tight end – the Bucs still had 53 healthy players on the practice field behind team headquarters on Wednesday. It was the first full-scale practice of the regular season, and it left the head coach in a good mood.
"I thought it was a good first day of the week," said Dungy. "Our attention was good and our tempo was good, so overall it was pleasing. Your first group is working a little more so it's a little crisper."
Though reports of a failed physical may impact the situation, the Dallas Cowboys, Tampa Bay's opponent on Sunday, were on the verge of signing former Buccaneers quarterback Ryan Leaf on Wednesday. Leaf was waived by the Buccaneers on Monday.
Dallas Head Coach Dave Campo admitted that the Cowboys' interest in Leaf had begun much earlier in the offseason, so the fact that the quarterback could be a walking scouting report on the Bucs' offense is coincidental.
And, according to Dungy, not much of a problem.
"That happens a lot in this day and age," said the Bucs coach. "He obviously knows our offense very well and has practiced against our defense, but they have coaches that watch tape and we've played them in the past.
"The reality is there. You have guys that leave your team all the time. We've got guys in St. Louis now, guys with the New York Jets. If you play them, you really can't worry about it. You've got to just do what you do very well."
Leaf, of course, was involved in a crash course on the Bucs' offense over the last few months, and had learned it well enough to briefly make the active roster on Sunday. However, that does not make the new Cowboy (if the signing occurs) a serious weapon on the Dallas sideline.
"There are probably some things he can give them, but we're not going to change a whole, whole lot," said Dungy. "We just won't tell them what two things we're changing."
The Cowboys, of course, are more concerned about what Leaf can give them in the long run. Campo indicated that Dallas had originally targeted Leaf over former Baltimore Raven Tony Banks, who was released by the Cowboys in a surprise late-August move.
"We did extensive study on Ryan prior to us signing Tony Banks in the offseason," said Campo. "He was clearly our number one choice to have an opportunity to transition with and still have an upside. He did absolutely nothing in Tampa Bay that led us to believe that there was anything but positive from an on-the-field, off-the-field type of attitude. We felt it was important that we follow through on our study and see what we have.
"We certainly will try to gain some information, but the main thing is, we feel like we're always going to be massaging the bottom of the roster. He's coming in as the third quarterback and we're going to see what he can do."
Like the Buccaneers, who originally claimed Leaf off waivers from San Diego in March, the Cowboys are interested in forming their own opinions on the former number-two pick in the 1998 draft.
"I want to see it first-hand," said Campo of Leaf's abilities and attitude. "I want to see it as I see it. We're still in the process right now of evaluating his physical, so it isn't a completely done deal."
Both of the Buccaneers' big-ticket free agent signings of the offseason involved players from the NFC East. QB Brad Johnson came to the Buccaneers from Washington and DE Simeon Rice made the move from Arizona. That's two players who thus have an already-formed rivalry with the Dallas Cowboys.
Rice's Cardinals played the Cowboys twice a year during the end's first five seasons in the league, but Arizona came away with just three victories in those 10 regular-season matchups. Arizona never won at Dallas over that span (though they did take a 1988 playoff game in Texas Stadium).
So Rice is familiar with the Big D, but does have a slightly different feeling about the trip this year:
"Kind of knowing we're going to go up there and win," he said. "We've got more than a fighting chance. We have the pieces in place to do big things.
"It's definitely the time to put up or shut up. It's like we're unveiling the 2001 (model) and this is going to be the indication as to where we're going this season."
LB Derrick Brooks, who was eager to cross Texas Stadium off the very short list of NFL venues in which he has never played, understands Rice's eagerness but had another unfamiliar feeling midway through week one of the season.
"I'm a little nervous for some reason," he admitted, laughing. "I was sitting in the meeting thinking about that today. It's all real for now. We're looking good and feeling good right now, but I started feeling a little nervous for some reason.
"But it's going to be fun, starting the season out on the road. The last time we did that, we opened up at Philly a few years ago and got a win."
Actually, the game to which Brooks refers, a 21-6 victory at Philadelphia on September 3, 1995, was not the Bucs' most recent road opener. Tampa Bay also opened last season with a 21-16 win at New England but started the 1998 campaign with a 31-7 loss at Minnesota.
Wednesday's morning meetings officially kicked off player preparations for the 2001 regular season, and the team quickly focused in on the Cowboys. However, Dungy was willing to look back at the preseason period as a whole and offer his personal pros and cons.
On one hand, Dungy liked the development he saw in the offense.
"I thought, for the most part, we threw very well," he said. "We hit some big plays. Guys that were open, we generally got the ball to the them. And I thought Warrick ran the ball very well. When we've got the combination of those two, we should be tough to stop."
On the other hand, that same group sometimes shot itself in the foot before points could be put on the board.
"(We were hurt by) penalties and turnovers, which we've got to avoid," said Dungy. "You just can't win that way."
Looking ahead, Dungy believes the team speed and quickness on the defensive front may be the asset that pays the most dividends this fall.
"Any time you've got that front putting pressure on people, you make the ball come out faster and not quite as accurate, and you end up getting more turnovers from your linebackers and DBs," he said. "I think we're going to be a very good Astroturf team. I'm anxious to see us on turf this week because I think that's going to be a good surface for us defensively."