Head Coach Jon Gruden is amazed by the toughness of many of his players
In 13-plus seasons as a Tampa Bay Buccaneer, linebacker Derrick Brooks has never missed a regular-season or postseason game.
Brooks is questionable for the Buccaneers' home opener against Atlanta next Sunday.
The 10-time Pro Bowler has played more games – 209 and counting – than any other player in franchise history, having stepped into the lineup on Day One in 1995 and never stepping back out. He came in as a reserve in three games in his rookie campaign in which the Bucs started in a nickel package, but he has started every game over the last 13 seasons, including Sunday's 2008 home opener against the Saints.
However, Brooks missed a good portion of the second half of the New Orleans after suffering a hamstring strain that made it impossible for him to run at full speed. He estimated after the game that it was the first time in his life that he had missed meaningful snaps in a game played by his team.
Could Brooks' incredible streak come to an end next weekend. That's apparently a possibility.
Head Coach Jon Gruden updated the Buccaneers' injury status on Monday morning, following Sunday's 24-20 loss at New Orleans, and he listed the team's starting weakside linebacker as one of the main concerns. Though official injury reports aren't due until Wednesday, and the report that utilizes designations such as "questionable" isn't formulated until Friday, Gruden indicated that Brooks heads into the week as a significant question mark.
"Derrick Brooks has a strained hamstring and his status is questionable," said Gruden. "Maurice Stovall left the game early with a neck strain and his status will be questionable this week. And Jeff Garcia has an ankle sprain; he got, I guess, rolled up a little bit late in the game and his status will be questionable as well."
Though he has been relatively healthy in recent seasons, Brooks has overcome injuries previously in his career to remain in the lineup. Given his deep knowledge of the Buccaneers' defense, he could likely play against the Falcons even if he sees little practice time this week. However, it is still too early to know if his injured leg will comply. Asked after Sunday's game if he would be in the lineup against Atlanta, Brooks simply said, "Why wouldn't I?"
If the stalwart linebacker is unable to go against the Falcons, the Bucs have several possible options to replace him. During the Saints game, he was replaced by Adam Hayward, the second-year linebacker who backs up both the Mike (middle) and Will (weakside) spots. However, the coaches may choose instead to shuffle the linebacking trio a bit.
"We have the capability of moving people around a little bit," said Gruden. "Cato June could end up being the Will and we could move Quincy Black into the Sam [strongside] position. Let's see where Derrick is here in the next 24 hours and we will put our contingency plan in place if need be."
If the three players mentioned by Gruden are all sidelined next weekend, that would represent a serious blow to each phase of the team. Garcia, obviously, is the starting quarterback and a captain on offense, while Stovall is one of the team's best special teams player. Before hurting his neck, Stovall recorded the tackle on the game's opening kickoff and later downed a Josh Bidwell punt inside the 10.
Obviously, much of the attention this week will focus on Garcia, who has had bad fortune with injuries over the last month. He missed most of training camp and the preseason with a calf strain and also jammed the little finger on his throwing hand during the week of practice leading up to the opener.
It is not yet certain how much he will be limited by his current ailment.
"He's got swelling on the ankle," said Gruden. "He's going to be questionable. That's the knowledge I have and that's what I give you today. Obviously he's had the calf, he had the pinky and now he's got an ankle.
"We've got to get the quarterback in reps. We've got to get wired in. We will do that here in the next 24 to 48 hours. We will make sure we get all the information we need to do what gives our football team a chance to get back to one and one and win our first football game."
Brian Griese was the active quarterback behind Garcia in the opener and thus appears to be the first choice to replace the starter if necessary. Gruden said that both Griese and Luke McCown, who was the inactive third quarterback in New Orleans, would be ready to play on Sunday.
The same appears to be true of cornerback Ronde Barber, another player who has never missed a game due to injury in his Buccaneer career. Barber played in just one game as a rookie in 1997 while learning the system but has appeared in all 161 Buccaneer contests since. Against the Saints on Sunday, he had to come off the field for one play when he was shaken up by the extremely hard hit he initiated on running back Reggie Bush. Barber dislodged the football with his hit and June appeared to return it for a touchdown, but the initial ruling of a fumble was quickly changed to an incompletion.
"He did take a good hit; I think he is going to be okay this week," said Gruden. "Obviously, he is a big part of our team. We played a very physical team yesterday; I think he is going to be okay. I don't believe he got knocked out; no concussions that I know of. A lot of these guys get hit hard, and how they get up play after play is a mystery to me. These are tough guys that play the game, and certainly Ronde is one of the toughest I have ever coached."