CB Ronde Barber, pressed into service at safety, gets pointers on playing the position from Pro Bowl safety John Lynch
There was a lot of huddling during Thursday's practice at One Buccaneer Place, and not just by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' offense.
Martin Gramatica huddled with Head Coach Tony Dungy. Dungy, General Manager Rich McKay and Special Teams Coach Joe Marciano huddled with Head Trainer Todd Toriscelli. Director of Player Personnel Tim Ruskell huddled with Pro Personnel Director Mark Dominik. Toriscelli huddled with Team Physician Joe Diaco.
You see, there were issues on Thursday.
Gramatica, the team's Pro Bowl placekicker, was scheduled to try out his injured right hamstring (see below), but before that topic was even tended to, another injury problem had arisen at practice. During the kickoff return drill that opened the two-hour session, rookie safety John Howell suffered a right ankle sprain on a freak misstep.
In obvious pain, Howell had difficulty getting off the field, stopping and going to the ground several times as Toriscelli and other trainers attempted to help him. He has been added to the injury report as 'questionable' with what the training department has diagnosed as a sprain.
Of course, the Bucs are loathe to see any of their players injured, but Howell's mishap could hardly come at a worse time for the secondary, which is rapidly running out of safeties. After Howell went down on Thursday, the team finished the practice with only one true safety on the field, starting free safety Dexter Jackson.
Third-string QB Joe Hamilton filled in on the scout team during seven-on-seven drills. Cornerbacks Ronde Barber and Brian Kelly were also seen at strong safety during several portions of the workout.
"We're going to be fine, though," Head Coach Tony Dungy reassured questioners after practice. "Brian Kelly and Ronde Barber got some work there, so we have our backup plan set if we need it. They basically worked at free and we worked Dexter some at strong safety."
Howell was already the team's only healthy backup at both safety spots, as Eric Vance continues to struggle with a knee sprain and David Gibson tries to recover from an ankle sprain. Vance was downgraded to 'out' early on Thursday but Gibson is considered 'probable.' Starting strong safety John Lynch was added to the injury report on Thursday with a shoulder sprain and was on the sideline for practice.
"We think the guys are going to be fine," said Dungy. "John Lynch is kind of precautionary, a shoulder injury. David Gibson tried to go yesterday but we just feel like it would be better to rest him. There's a good chance he'll be able to go on Saturday."
The safety position wasn't the only one thinned out on Thursday, as other resting players included Gramatica, defensive tackle Warren Sapp, wide receiver Frank Murphy and wide receiver Reidel Anthony. Running back Warrick Dunn and guard/center Todd Washington did return to work on Thursday, but wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson was excused to attend a funeral.
McKay, Dungy, Toriscelli and the rest may have been huddling at various times to discuss the situation at safety, or they may have been deciding the right approach to take with Gramatica.
As it turned out, the team decided to shelve their injured kicker for one more day, though Toriscelli did report that Gramatica has made a significant amount of recovery. He is almost certain to do some kicking near the beginning of Friday's practice, but the Bucs appear set to sign another kicker to hedge their bets..
"We probably will sign another kicker, then maybe see how Martin is (on Saturday)," said Dungy. "We really don't have to make the decision until 7:30 on Saturday night. The worst-case scenario is, we think Martin's going to be fine, he kicks tomorrow and does fine, we don't sign another kicker by 4:00 o'clock tomorrow, then Martin wakes up on Saturday and it's aggravated. We're out of luck. My sense is, we'll sign a guy and then see Saturday night how Martin is."
The team worked out free agent NFL veterans Doug Brien and Brad Daluiso on Wednesday.
Gramatica may have believed he was going to give it a try on Thursday, as he came out in warmup gear near the beginning of the session and spoke with Dungy on the field. Later, after tending to Howell, Toriscelli met with the McKay and the coaches, then spoke with Gramatica on the sideline. The third-year kicker then jogged one lap with punter Mark Royals, went into the locker room and was excused for the rest of the day.
"He actually felt like he could (kick)," said Dungy. "He wants to and thinks he can, and we'll find out.
"We just felt like it was going to be better to wait until tomorrow to see what happens. It probably is not going to change our decision making, but we're going to give him one more day of rest."
In contrast to the safeties, the Bucs' linebacker situation is thriving. Not only are all six members of the linebacking corps healthy, but they welcomed a new player on Thursday in former New England Patriot Maugaula Tuitele. Tuitele was signed to fill the opening on the Bucs' five-man practice squad created last week when G/C Shane Grice was promoted to the active roster. Most recently, he was waived from the practice squad on Monday.
Tuitele (6-2, 253) originally joined the Patriots as a rookie free agent after the 2000 college draft and has spent the past two years bouncing from New England's practice squad to its active roster. He was a college teammate of Howell's at Colorado State, where Tuitele was an all-conference first-team pick as a senior in 1999. He is a native of Torrance, California.