Aaron Stecker's big kickoff return against the Saints reinforced Tony Dungy's point that all 53 players must be focused and prepared for crucial late-season games
Many corporations consider this the least productive time of the year, almost a lost week. The days between Christmas and New Year's are too full of vacationers, hangovers, parties and general end-of-the-year inertia to produce much quality work.
That will hopefully not be the case at Tampa Bay Buccaneers headquarters, however. By necessity, these days are filled with some of the team's most important work of the year, and One Buccaneer Place was bustling by 6:30 a.m. on Wednesday. That's the day preparations for the incoming Baltimore Ravens began in earnest.
Two days off following Sunday's big win over New Orleans gave Buccaneer players a chance to rest, recharge and enjoy the holidays, but the team is now operating on condensed time. The Bucs and Ravens square off on Saturday night this weekend, so one day of preparation has been robbed from the schedule. Head Coach Tony Dungy doesn't believe that will pose a problem for his team, which put on its most focused show of the season against the Saints and would like to duplicate that effort.
"I think we'll be ready," said Dungy. "I think we'll be focused in much like we were last week. And we're working on the same time frame that Baltimore is, so it's not like they have extra days on us, which can happen when you play a Monday night game. We'll have sufficient time to get zeroed in on these guys."
Baltimore is coming off a 16-0 blanking of the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday, which improved the Ravens' record to 9-5. Like the 8-6 Bucs, they are in the midst of a crowded fight for a Wild Card spot, though Baltimore's position is less precarious than the Bucs. Tampa Bay earned a strong edge in the battle for the final NFC spot by beating New Orleans, but still is likely to need at least one win against two 9-5 teams, Baltimore and Philadelphia.
"I think (the players) have to realize that we are still in the same situation where we are still in must-win games," said Dungy. "We're on the outside looking in. There is a group of teams in the playoffs and we are not in that group yet. That's what I'm hoping the team draws on and we are playing an excellent football team, defending champs and there should be no reason for us not to prepare well."
That begins on Wednesday with film review, courtesy of the coaches' Christmas-day work on Tuesday afternoon, then a two-hour practice later in the day. The Bucs will also have their usual full-scale practices on Thursday and Friday, with only the Saturday walk-through stricken by the accelerated schedule.
The Bucs will also find out a little bit more on Wednesday about who will be available to help them against the Ravens. Whether the team continues its search for a temporary replacement at kicker will depend somewhat on the state of Martin Gramatica's right hamstring on Wednesday and Thursday. In addition, the team is eager to see if wide receiver Frank Murphy (ankle sprain) can return to action after missing last Sunday's game.
"We hope he'll be able to come back to practice on Wednesday," said Dungy. "He wasn't able to do much last week but we're looking forward to get him back. I don't know if he'll be full speed on Wednesday or not."
The Bucs' official injury report was released Wednesday morning and Murphy is marked as 'probable' while Gramatica is considered 'questionable.'
If Murphy is able to play this week, the Bucs might have an interesting decision on their hands regarding kickoff returns. Murphy had been performing well at that task, better perhaps than his routine 22.8-yard average would indicated. The first year wideout has run very hard on his returns, hit the holes straight upfield and nearly broken a few long ones.
Stecker, on the other hand, did break a long one to start the New Orleans game, the longest in team history, as a matter of fact. His 86-yarder on the opening kickoff put the Bucs at the Saints' 14 and got a 30-point, first-half explosion off to a quick start. He had briefly handled kickoff returns earlier in the season and has averaged 28.0 yards on eight runbacks, mostly due to that 86-yarder.
"Aaron's returned pretty well the times he's done it and that was a great return," said Dungy. "It wasn't as if guys were unblocked so it was a big play for us and we'll probably go into every game (weighing) who's healthy and who's available and what type of returns we're going to have as far as who we are going to have back there."
That would seem to indicate that the Bucs are going to delay the decision, though it also hits on one of Dungy's most common messages at this time of the year. Since big plays can come from unlikely sources at times – Stecker's return surely was the impetus for the highest-scoring day (tied) in team history – the coach wants all 53 of his players focused on doing their job to the best of their abilities.
"Well that's what you need coming down the stretch, whether it's this type of big games or playoff games," he said. "Many, many times it's someone who you may not expect, but you need all 53 guys functioning and playing well and I think we had that offensively and defensively (against the Saints)."
Whether the Bucs will be able to say the same thing after playing the Ravens could depend on how well the team uses its short schedule to prepare, and the response to that issue begins on Wednesday.