Head Coach Jon Gruden was surprised to hear WR Ike Hilliard say he wanted to keep playing after the hit that knocked him out of Sunday night's game
Jon Gruden got in a brief conversation with Ike Hilliard on Sunday night as the trainers' cart was starting to drive the wounded Tampa Bay Buccaneers receiver off the field. Mere minutes earlier, Hilliard had appeared to lose consciousness momentarily after a brutal hit delivered by Seattle Seahawks linebacker Leroy Hill.
It hasn't yet been confirmed that Hilliard was knocked out – Gruden didn't get to ask him that question on Sunday – but it certainly has been established beyond much doubt that the veteran receiver is one tough football player.
What Hilliard told Gruden, as he sat up on the cart and let everyone know that he was okay, was that he actually wanted to keep playing.
"He was on the cart and he was alert and wanted to go back into the game, to be honest with you," said Gruden on Monday morning, shaking his head appreciatively. "He is unbelievable. I'm just thankful that he's okay."
As is anyone who witnessed the blow that Hilliard absorbed during Sunday's 20-10 win over Seattle. Hilliard had caught a short pass over the middle, running right to left with linebacker Lofa Tatupu beginning to grab him from behind. Hilliard's route took him right into the path of the waiting Hill, who hit the Bucs' receiver with such force that Tatupu was left with a concussion from having Hilliard driven back into him. Neither Hilliard nor Tatupu came back into the game.
Hilliard, in fact, was taken to a local hospital for tests, despite his desire to keep playing. Obviously, NFL teams take no chances when it comes to potential head injuries. The good news is that Hilliard didn't even have to stay overnight.
"Ike Hilliard left the hospital last night," reported Gruden. "He checked out okay. I'm very happy to give you that news. I don't know what his status will be like this week. He was obviously checked out thoroughly last night and all indications were good, but we'll see how he feels here in the coming days. Right now I would say it's in question."
If Hilliard is held out of next Sunday's game in Dallas, it will mark the second straight week that one of the team's receivers has suffered an injury that led to missed playing time. Maurice Stovall sustained a hamstring pull in the Bucs' win over Carolina and was inactive for the Seattle game. With Joey Galloway still on the road to recovery from his Week Two foot injury, the Bucs even had to activate Brian Clark from the practice squad to get up to full strength in the receiving corps.
Gruden said Clark played well – he had one catch for 12 yards – but he is obviously concerned about his suddenly hobbled group of wideouts.
"I don't know what we're going to do right now," said Gruden, referring to next weekend's game in Dallas. "Obviously with Joey Galloway's status, perhaps he can come back and play some for us. Maurice Stovall is already out and when you lose Ike Hilliard you're talking about three of your four receivers that opened the season for you. We'll have to lean on Antonio [Bryant], we'll have to lean on [Michael] Clayton. Brian Clark came in and played pretty good. Jerramy Stevens picked up the slack last night. We'll just have to lean on the men that we do have."
Galloway has made progress in recent weeks, practicing more extensively on Wednesdays and Thursdays and appearing less limited by the foot injury. However, he wasn't cleared Sunday night despite the Bucs' obvious need at the position, so it appears as if there is another hurdle to clear.
"We'll play him if he's healthy," said Gruden. "You've got to be healthy to play and you've got to practice. He didn't practice the whole training camp, he missed a lot of practice late last season and he really hasn't practiced very much in a long time. Now he's picked it up the last couple days; hopefully he can go out there and move around and have no restrictions. That's what I'm looking for – no restrictions. Zero restrictions."
Bryant, who had six catches for 115 yards and a touchdown against Seattle, has emerged as the leading playmaker in the Bucs' passing attack this season. Though he opened the season as the Bucs' starting flanker, he has been playing split end in Galloway's absence. That has gone so well that the Bucs don't want to shift Bryant back to flanker even when Galloway returns.
"We won't move him," said Gruden. "We're not going to move him at this point in time. Now Joey, if he does come back, we're going to be creative in terms of how we get him going again. We obviously need him in the lineup."