-Tight end O.J. Howard was moved to Injured Reserve after suffering a significant Achilles injury in Sunday's win over the Chargers. It's thankfully at a position in which the Bucs have depth but though it's 'next man up,' there's no player quite like Howard.
"You can't replace him – you just put the next guy in and put in the gameplan what he does best," said Head Coach Bruce Arians. "Cam Brate, Tanner Hudson – those guys can do things, too. They can't be O.J. – O.J.'s a special guy. Obviously, we'll sorely miss him, but one man's injury is another man's opportunity. These guys still don't know who Lou Gehrig is – let alone Wally Pipp – I use that analogy all the time. Who's available this week? This is your chance to shine [on] national television."
Howard had 146 yards and two touchdowns through four games. Despite exiting the game on Sunday early, he had 50 yards and one of those touchdowns as he continued to carve out his role. And his relationship with his new quarterback.
"It's a tough injury and it's tough to lose a guy like that who everyone loves being around because he's a great teammate, he does everything that everyone asks him to do, he's a very talented player, he's got a great attitude and he brings his best every day," said Brady of Howard. "He's dependable [and] consistent. To lose a guy like that is a big blow for all of us. We care about him, and who he is as a person and as a man, and I know he'll overcome this. It's just the kind of person he is. He's an extremely hard worker, so he will rehab good and he will be back, and I think he will be better than ever. It's a tough break for him and a tough break for our team to lose someone of that caliber. We're all supportive of him and what's ahead for him, which I know he will overcome."
- Unfortunately, it's a next-man up mentality not just with Howard, but across the offensive skill positions as the Bucs get ready for Chicago. The Bucs' top four receivers and two of their top running backs all missed practice for the second-straight day. With the injury to Howard, coupled with a depleted receiver corps across all positions, there are going to be opportunities for others to step up. Like Chicago-native Cam Brate.
"I think Cam's a pro's pro," said Arians. "He's always ready [and] we know what he can do. We had him last year [and] we know what his strengths are, so we can build around that. Tom [Brady] has great trust in him – we all do – and he's a better blocker than people give him credit for. We'll do what he does best, and he'll be a big part of the gameplan."
Brate hasn't seen the field as much as in years past due to the acquisition of Rob Gronkowski and Howard's evolvement into a more complete tight end. But that doesn't mean Brate hasn't stayed ready. And now he'll have a chance to show out in front of the home… er… town (there won't be a crowd at Soldier Field).
"I feel terrible for O.J. He was playing great and I just feel really bad for him with how things worked out," lamented Brate. "That's kind of just the nature of the beast. I was kind of just biding my time there for a little bit, so I'm feeling very fresh. Heading into the short week, I feel like I kind of have the leg up on everyone else. I haven't been playing too much, but as a football player, you obviously want to play. You feel like you're contributing, right? I kind of had to take the back seat there for the first few weeks. I was still preparing as if I was going to be playing every play, taking all the mental reps and everything like that, and [I was] still getting the work in practice. I feel like from a preparation standpoint I'm ready to go and excited about the opportunity, not just for me, but for other guys to step up too."
True enough, there will be other guys who may or may not need to step up. Arians mentioned Fournette would likely be a game-time decision. There's a lot of shuffling of players up until the very last second on a short week like this, which makes things a little interesting for the coaches.
"It's a lot of thought that has to be put in [because] you don't know," said Leftwich. "The unknown, the inability to really, truly know until you get to the game – it always makes it a little more difficult. Hey, it is what it is [and] it's what everybody has to go through every Thursday night, probably. Thursdays get here quick when you play on Sunday, so it's a lot of work that has to be done. We're doing double time – that's us as coaches [and] us as players. We've been here before – we've played Thursday Night games before. We know they're a little difficult – especially when you're traveling – so we're just trying to do everything we can to prepare."
Meanwhile, quarterback Tom Brady and his offense have to be prepared for everything, too. That's getting easier with how much more comfortable Brady is becoming in the scheme and with his teammates.
"When you're in a locker room like that for as long as I've been in it, it doesn't feel like I've ever left the locker room," said Brady. "What you have with this sport is you have your memories and you have relationships. That's what it comes down to for me. To have the opportunity to come here and develop relationships with a different set of people – and that's happened in my 20-year career, but to come down to Tampa, to join a team and to be embraced the way that I've been embraced – it's been amazing for me. [I] just enjoy every minute of it [and] I take that responsibility being a quarterback, being a leader [and] being a captain – I take those not lightly. I want to show up and be the best for my teammates every day. I know they count on me to be dependable [and] consistent. They depend on me to be a great player for the team and I want to deliver for them. It's really been a privilege for me to be here."
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