For most NFL teams, in most in-season weeks, Tuesday is the player's day off. It's a chance to rest, regroup and – win or lose the previous weekend – turn the page to the next opponent. It's also the perfect time to discuss some of the issues surrounding the team before another week of game preparation kicks into high gear.
This is not one of those weeks. The Buccaneers' schedule leading up to Thursday night's matchup with New England is condensed and rearranged, with the players getting most of Monday off. So for one week only, the One Buc Mailbag is moving to Monday. So let's get right to it: This week, we discuss the return of Doug Martin, the injury report on a short week and the Bucs' Thursday night history.
Next week, the Mailbag goes back to Tuesday, but you can send in questions any time you like. The easiest way is to hit me up on Twitter (@ScottSBucs, using #BucsMailbag), but if 140 characters aren't quite enough to get your point across, you can also send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. Fresh Legs
Well, for one thing, you can expect him to be his usual positive presence in the locker room. Martin was back on Monday with his typical wide smile, and his teammates were thrilled to see him again after his month away.
A behind-the-scenes look at the Buccaneers' Week 4 matchup with the Giants.
"It's great to see Doug back, honestly," said guard Kevin Pamphile, with Martin sitting just a couple lockers away. "That's a breath of fresh air, and another aspect to the offense that's going to make us even more tough to beat. We treat Doug as family, he's a brother. We're happy to see him back and we're ready for him to give us support on the field. He's fun to talk to, fun to hang around with so it's great to see him back here in the locker room."
But of course, that's not what you're asking. Even Pamphile, while talking about Martin's locker-room presence, couldn't help but slip in a few thoughts about the difference Martin can make on Sundays (or in this case, Thursday night). You want to know what we can expect from Doug in an offense that – at least this past weekend – looks like it's already loaded with weapons.
I think there's two different questions here, though: What can we expect from Martin over the course of the remainder of the season, and what can we expect from him right away? That's at least partially out of his hands; Dirk Koetter, the play-caller, will determine how many carries Martin gets, and how quickly – if at all – he returns to being the primary running back.
Martin, who has been working out in California while finishing up the four-game suspension that started at the end of last season, says he's ready. He also knows better than to make any assumption as to the size of his role in the offense.
"The first thing I did when I got back was see the trainers to make sure I was physically okay, and I passed that with flying colors," said Martin. "It's been awhile. It was a long break and I can't wait to get out there. I'm going to get out there and do the best I can do. I'm going to be as ready as I can be and work hard like I know I can. I feel great. I had a good plan over there in California. I'm ready to go.
"I'm not sure [how much I will play]. I'm just going to go out there and play to the best of my ability. Whatever that is, that's the coach's decision, what he decides to do, and I'm for it."
In three games without Martin, the Bucs' rushing attack has been relatively effective but not particularly explosive. Jacquizz Rodgers has acquitted himself nicely and allowed Koetter to stick to his obvious preference of keeping the offense balanced with 25-30 running plays per game (specific game situations dictate the final number). He did have an important explosive play in the win over the Giants, with a 36-yard run that set up a Mike Evans touchdown catch on the next play, and he's averaging 4.1 yards per carry. Even with Martin returning, there should remain a sizeable role for Rodgers.
That said, when Martin is at the top of his game, as he was in 2015, he's one of the best producers of explosive rushing plays in the NFL. During that 2015 campaign, in which he finished second in the NFL in rushing, Martin had 33 carries of 10 or more yards and 14 of 20 or more yards. Those totals ranked second and first in the league respectively.
Are the Buccaneers getting that Doug Martin back in their offense? There were a lot of similarities in the way the coaching staff raved about how Martin looked in the 2015 and 2017 offseasons. Obviously, this year there was the added layer of Martin returning from a stay in a treatment facility after violating the NFL's drug policy. He said he came back from that experience mentally and physically stronger, and he looked extremely good running the ball in training camp. He gained 43 yards and scored a touchdown on 11 carries in preseason games.
There's also one advantage to Martin sitting out the first three games, which he summed up in two words on Monday upon his return: "Fresh legs." Martin also said he expected to be active for the Patriots game even though he would have only been back with the team for four days by then.
So, to get back to those two questions. Immediate expectations? I would suspect that Martin will be eased back into the offense, since Rodgers has proved to be a viable option and second-year man Peyton Barber has done well with his handful of opportunities. Of course, I also think the coaching staff will play the hot hand, so if Martin starts making big plays with his first few handoffs, he might expand his role more rapidly than expected.
Expectations for the balance of the season? Given Martin's promising offseason work, his big-play possibility and the Bucs' commitment to the run, I would be surprised if he does not eventually reclaim the lead-back status and get the largest share of the carries. Given that he has missed three games and might need one or two more to get back in the flow, a 1,000-yard season might be a tough goal to achieve, but he should combine with Rodgers, Barber and third-down specialist Charles Sims to give the Buccaneers a running game closer to what they had in 2015 than what they had last year.
2. Short-Week Injury Status
Excellent question, Grant. The Thursday night games necessitate doing a lot of things different than in a normal in-season week, and the handling of the injury report is one of them.
Teams usually start practicing on Wednesday for a Sunday game, and that's the first day they have to put out an injury report. That one, and the one on Thursday, merely indicates the player's practice status – either he participated fully, was a limited participant or didn't practice at all. On Friday, game-status designations are added, ranging from Out to Doubtful to Questionable.
The Buccaneers did not practice on Monday; they will really only have one full-speed practice before the Patriots game. (That's not a complaint, as the Patriots have the same schedule and also have to travel). The Bucs only held a brief walk-through on Monday, but in such a situation NFL injury-report regulations require a team to estimate what the player's practice status would have been if the team had been going full-speed.
So the Bucs did that, and the list is not exactly heart-warming to a Buccaneers fan, although it is an improvement from the last two game weeks. There are four players on Tampa Bay's report, all of whom were listed as "did not practice:" linebackers Kwon Alexander and Lavonte David and safeties Keith Tandy and T.J. Ward.
The Buccaneers played a game Sunday without both Alexander and David for the first time since Alexander arrived in 2015. They won the game, beating the Giants, 25-23 on a last-second field goal, but they would obviously prefer to have those two playmakers back in the middle of their defense. We'll see if either one's status on the injury report improves before Thursday's game but, again, it's a short week.
Tandy and Ward had essentially been splitting the reps at strong safety. Ward suffered a hip injury late in the Week Three game at Minnesota and had to sit out Sunday's win over the Giants. That gave Tandy a bigger role against New York, until he too sustained a hip injury and rookie Justin Evans finished the game. If neither Ward nor Tandy is ready to go by Thursday, the Buccaneers will be a little thin at safety, with only former cornerback and current special teams ace Josh Robinson backing up Evans and Chris Conte.
Tampa Bay's injury report on Tuesday will come after practice and will emulate what the team usually does on Friday. Even though there will not be a full-speed practice or any media availability on Wednesday, that's the day the Buccaneers will put out their injury report with game-status notations for Thursday night.
3. Thursday Night Memories
I know everybody's excited about playing the Pats on Thursday night, but I'm a little worried. It's not that its New England…well, that's probably part of it tbh…it's just that I don't have great feelings about the Buccaneers and Thursday night games. Am I right about that? I know we lost pretty big to Atlanta last year but I don't specifically remember other Thurs night games. Am I right about that? I hope I'm not.
Bobby Carlson (via email to email@example.com)
Well, I wish I could disabuse you of that mental association with Thursday night games, Bobby, but you're not exactly wrong. Like all teams, Tampa Bay has regularly been getting a Thursday night game since 2012, and it has lost that game in each of the last four seasons.
The Atlanta game last year was a tough one, especially for a tired and banged-up defense coming off a five-quarter outing just four days earlier against Oakland. Tampa Bay lost that game, 43-28, but their second-half turnaround began the very next week against Chicago. The Falcons also got the Bucs on a Thursday night in Atlanta in 2014, delivering a 56-14 drubbing. I'm betting that's the main one that caused that association in your mind, even if you couldn't specifically recall it at the time.
Overall, the Buccaneers are 2-6 all-time in Thursday night games. Their last win on Thursday came in 2012, when they whipped the Vikings, 36-17, on Oct. 25. Doug Martin had a big game. You've got to go all the way back to 1980 for the other Buccaneer Thursday win, as they beat the Rams in a 10-9 thriller on September 11. That wasn't a nationally-televised game, but it was a bit of revenge for the Bucs, who had lost the NFC Championship Game to L.A. the previous season.
But you know what, Bob? I wouldn't sweat it. There's no real reason that playing on Thursday should be tougher for the Buccaneers than the Patriots this week. At least the Bucs don't also have to travel on a short week. I mean, it wasn't that long ago that it seemed like the Buccaneers couldn't win a home game. Now they've got a six-game winning streak going at Raymond James Stadium. The Bucs won't beat or be defeated by the Patriots because the game is on Thursday night; last year's results have no bearing on this year's game. However, it would be awfully nice to get a win so that you can go back to being happy about Thursdays.