RB Aaron Stecker hopes to duck under the ineligible list each weekend
It's supposed to be a formality.
Every Friday, four players are made inactive, and every Sunday, four more. Each NFL team carries 53 players on its active roster but can only suit 45 up for any given game. That means eight players are declared ineligible. For one reason or another, they are the ones deemed least likely to make an impact that week.
It's supposed to be easy, but those decisions are becoming tougher in Tampa. Through brilliant drafting and shrewd signing decisions, General Manager Rich McKay and Head Coach Tony Dungy have fashioned perhaps the deepest roster in Buccaneer history. That means some awfully good players are finding themselves inactive on Sunday.
"Our dress list is always kind of a fight, a dogfight," said Dungy. "We have a lot of quality players and we'll have to see how we can get them dressed."
John McLaughlin, for instance, has been inactive for each of the Bucs' first two games, despite his recognized excellence on special teams. McLaughlin had 14 tackles on kick coverage last season and is one of the few 250-pounders in the league who can line up at the 'gunner' position on punts.
"John McLaughlin hasn't got it going yet and we need to get him involved," said Dungy. "Todd Yoder got a chance (on Sunday) as well as Aaron Stecker."
So how to get McLaughlin into gear on Sundays? That decision becomes tougher, potentially, next weekend as second-year safety Dexter Jackson returns to health. Jackson was perhaps the team's most improved player from 1999 to this summer, but he suffered a severe ankle sprain on the first play of the game in Miami on August 10.
Before that injury, Jackson was filling in marvelously for Damien Robinson, the starting free safety who had a hamstring ailment of his own. The question at that point was not how to keep Jackson active but how to work him into a crowded and talented secondary. With Jackson returning to practice last Friday and looking to hit full speed this week, it seems unlikely he'll spend a third game on the inactive list.
While waiting for Jackson to recover, the team uncovered another viable safety option in rookie David Gibson. Robinson's leg and stamina held up better than expected in weeks one and two, meaning Gibson wasn't needed in the secondary as originally expected. The rookie did play extensively on special teams however, making three tackles against the Bears last Sunday.
Will Gibson have to take a seat with Jackson's return? How about Eric Vance, who made a kick coverage tackle and two defensive stops on Sunday? "I would really like to get Dexter going," said Dungy. "I think he'll be back this week. Dexter was running pretty well at the end of the week."
How deep are these Bucs? Andre Hastings, who has a 70-catch season and a 10-reception Super Bowl performance on his resume, hasn't donned a jersey in September yet. Hastings is certainly behind the team's established receiver quartet in familiarity with the offense, having been signed in late July, but he was impressive in training camp and has the full confidence of the coaching staff.
Or consider instead Kevin Dogins, who has started eight games on the offensive line over the past two seasons and is capable of playing either center or guard. Dogins was effective enough to take the left guard job from Jorge Diaz in December last season, but he's now part of an unfairly deep interior lineman group. C/G Todd Washington proved he could play either position during camp, as hoped, and rookie G Cosey Coleman was a revelation in his forst preseason. The Bucs even kept one more offensive lineman than usual in 2000 simply because they didn't want to part with one of these talented players.
You can see some of the dressing difficulties the Bucs are having in the decisions of the past week. In New England, first-year RB Aaron Stecker was made inactive despite being the team's best kickoff returner (29.8-yard average) during the preseason. This past Sunday, against Chicago, Stecker was brought up to handle that job, but he was activated at the expense of Rabih Abdullah, who has only rushed for 491 yards in the past three preseasons. The Bucs would love to have both players at their disposal but can't make them both fit into the number 45.
Stecker didn't make that choice any easier by having himself a nice, if largely unnoticed, game on Sunday. As the game got out of hand in the fourth quarter, Stecker came in for Warrick Dunn and ran the ball effectively even when the Bears knew Tampa Bay was going to stick to the ground game. Thanks to consecutive runs up the gut of 13 and 14 yards, Stecker finished with 26 yards on five carries.
The former Bear (he spent the 1999 preseason in Chicago after being signed as an undrafted rookie) got only chance to handle his primary job, taking the opening kickoff from eight yards deep into the end zone out to the Bucs' 23. It was risky, but it almost paid off in a big way.
"He got an F in judgement and an A in effort," said Dungy with a laugh. "He was really one block away from going 108 yards. It didn't surprise me. You get a chance to go against your old team…unless it was out of the end zone, he was probably coming out with it."
You can't blame Stecker for wanting to make a quick impression. With the depth the Bucs are currently sporting, that might be all the chance he'll get.