One unfortunate moment at M&T Bank Stadium – Cody Grimm blocking downfield after an Aqib Talib interception and getting rolled on from behind – could lead to a player getting the opportunity for which he's been waiting almost three years.
It could also mean the regular-season debut for a young man with some of the most obscure football roots you'll find in the NFL. It could even cause a 14-year possibly-Canton-bound veteran to pick up a new part-time gig.
Or it could lead to all of the above.
Grimm suffered a lower leg fracture on that play in Baltimore on Sunday, ending a rookie season that was already much more eventful than could have been expected. Grimm made the Buccaneers' 53-man roster despite being drafted in the seventh round, and then three weeks into the season he became a starter when Tanard Jackson was suspended. The Buccaneers could have turned to Corey Lynch or Sabby Piscitelli, the latter of whom was cut on Tuesday, but they trusted the rookie out of Virginia Tech and he repaid that trust handsomely.
As Lynch put it when asked as if he felt bad about being passed up for that starting position in September: "No. Did you see the way Cody played? Unbelievable."
But know Grimm is done for the year and the Buccaneers, still very much in the playoff hunt, may turn to Lynch to try to pull off the same sort of feat. Or they might turn to Vince Anderson, the first-year player just activated off the practice squad who is the first NFLer ever from Webber International. They've also got an ace up their sleeve in Ronde Barber, the Pro Bowl cornerback who certainly has the brains and the toughness to handle some action at safety.
The final solution could be a combination of those ideas, in fact, and thus while there is something of a competition this week to see who will replace Grimm in the starting lineup, the answer to who will play the first snap on Sunday may not be all that important.
"Back to that starting deal – it's kind of situational ball," said Head Coach Raheem Morris. "We've been doing it all year. I believe [tight end] Ryan Purvis got his first start last week. It's kind of one of those things – who we want to put in, when do you want to put them in, the personnel package you plan on being in. It's just an up-in-the-air deal. I look forward to watching these two go out there and compete, which is critical around here at One Buccaneer Place. It's going to be fun. Another challenge for our coaches. Another challenge for myself and for our defense."
Whether Morris reveals a new starter anytime soon or not, this much is clear from his discussion of the matter: Despite Grimm's injury and the release of Piscitelli, the cupboard is far from bare at safety.
"We're really looking forward to seeing Corey Lynch get out there and get some reps," said Morris. "We're looking forward to seeing Vince Anderson who we just activated get some reps. We're really looking forward to seeing Ronde Barber move back there a little bit and do some of the things we know he can do. We've got a nice little dynamic back that way. We picked up Larry Asante, who just got here off the waiver wire. I'm really excited about some of the things we've been able to do on the back end. Sean Jones has been playing well for us, and here we go."
The Bucs made eight roster moves on Tuesday, the last day of November. On the first day of December, they began practicing for a critical game this weekend against the first-place Atlanta Falcons and the league's 10th-ranked passing attack. There are five games left in the season and more teams than that vying for the six NFC playoff spot. It's a fine time to be juggling the lineup.
On the other hand, the Bucs have done it so often this season, and with almost universally good results, that they are now confident they can do it again, regardless of the late-season pressure.
"This is just commonplace here at One Buccaneer Place," said Morris. "We've been doing it all seen. We've got a bunch of different examples: Dekoda Watson late in the season versus the Atlanta Falcons; Larsen when he had to step in there and go; Zuttah stepping in at center. It's just commonplace here. You've got to get them out there and get them going fast. We're a young, fast team. We're going to play fast, play hard, play smart and play consistent and that will give us a chance to win against anybody."
As for the two young players who might find an opportunity in Grimm's absence, they are simply happy to be in the running. Lynch began his career with the Cincinnati Bengals as a sixth-round draft pick in 2008 and, after playing in seven games as a rookie, found himself on the practice squad in 2009 before the Bucs came calling. He has been a strong special-teamer for the Bucs ever since, as well as a standout on defense during the preseason, but has seen virtually no regular-season time at safety.
"I've been working hard for three years and I feel blessed to have the opportunity," said Lynch. "Obviously we miss the people who are gone. At the beginning of the season you just want to have a good preseason, and I've been having good preseasons. Then you've just got to wait your turn. When you're in this business, that's just how it is."
Anderson managed to catch the attention of some NFL scouts despite playing at a tiny NAIA school in Polk County, Florida and spent his rookie season on the New York Giants' practice squad. The Giants released Anderson just before training camp this summer but he hooked on with the Buccaneers in August and has been impressive on the practice field ever since. Whatever happens with the lineup, he's already taken one giant step forward with his promotion to the practice squad on Tuesday.
"I've been running scout team here, preparing myself for today," he said. "The day is actually here now, so I'm ready to step in and make an impact. I'm just trying to focus, stay focused, stay humble and go out there and do my job, do what they ask me to do and do it to the best of my ability. It's a very big chance for me to go out and showcase my talents. I've been waiting a long time. I'm definitely ready."
What Anderson's promotion indicates, and for that matter what the initial confidence in Grimm proves, is that the Buccaneers' coaching staff will base its decision on performance, so neither Lynch nor Anderson have to worry about how their backgrounds are interpreted. That will give both players confidence this week as they try to prove on the practice field that they are ready to step in.
"It's just neat to see," said Lynch. "There are a lot of organizations that put everything on maybe your draft status or this or that. But this organization, they just don't care. They just want the best 11 out on the field. And if I'm not the best and I'm on the sideline then that's good with me because we're winning. They just want to win and that's cool to see."
The NFL tweaked its scheduling format slightly this year, saving one intradivision matchup for each team until the final week of the season. The change was intended to increase the likelihood of meaningful games in Week 17 and thereby decrease the instances of teams resting wholesale portions of their starting lineups.
The Buccaneers, for instance, will play the defending-champion Saints in New Orleans in their regular-season finale. However, they won't have to wait until Week 17 to play a very meaningful intradivision contest.
The Falcons visit this weekend for a game that could prove to be the turning point of the season for the Buccaneers. Tampa Bay doesn't have to win the game in order to stay alive in the playoff race or keep their Race to 10 on track. However, a loss would reduce their chances of winning the NFC South to an uncomfortably small percentage. And with a very top-heavy conference race shaping up in the final month, winning a division title is still the most sure way for a team to get into the Super Bowl tournament.
The Bucs currently trail the Falcons by two games, so a loss would put them three games back with four to play, and with the Saints also in between them and Atlanta. Tampa Bay could run the table from there and still not catch both of those teams without a little help.
On the other hand, a win over the Falcons would reduce Atlanta's lead to one game over the Buccaneers, with the Saints either tied for first or second. That would look very much like a four-week free-for-all.
Because there is so much potential difference in those two scenarios, Buccaneer players are not shying away from the fact that Sunday's game is extremely important.
"It's obvious – a two-game lead with five games left in the season," said wide receiver Micheal Spurlock. "You have to keep winning. They've been playing good ball. We've got them in our house this time. We're going to just go out and do what we do and we'll see what happens."
Added rookie defensive tackle Gerald McCoy: "We've got to get this one. But it's going to be fun. I'm looking forward to it as a fun time. I haven't ever got to wear the throwback jersey, and I hear it's a fun time. It would be a good day to get a big win."
As becomes obvious twice a year, there isn't much need for added motivation when the Buccaneers and Falcons play. The two teams don't particularly care for each other, and the first meeting of each season provides that extra dose of revenge for whichever team comes out on the short end. This year, it was the Buccaneers, who fell just a few yards short of another comeback in Atlanta in Week Nine, losing 27-21.
"That was just one game," said wide receiver Mike Williams. "We knew we were going to get them again this season, and it's here now."
The Buccaneers couldn't allow themselves to dwell on that loss in Atlanta, with games against Carolina, San Francisco and Baltimore following on the schedule. The team clearly did a good job of refocusing, handling the Panthers relatively easily and shutting out the 49ers before another just-short comeback effort in Baltimore. They kept the sting of losing in the Georgia Dome from lingering and tried not to think too much about the rematch until the time arrived.
"I don't know if we've been 'waiting' for it," said Spurlock. "We may have had it in the back of our minds, but we've just been playing the games that come on our schedule. They're in our division, so we're lucky that we get to play them twice. I don't think it's a matter of 'waiting,' because you've got to be ready to play every weekend. Each week, each opponent is different.
"If you carry one loss into another game, that means you're not preparing for that team. That's how teams get beat. You think, 'Oh, they should win this game,' and then they get blown out because they're carrying something that happened in the past, or an emotional loss, into another game. So you just lick your wounds and move on."
Malecki Gets Another Shot on Practice Squad
The flurry of moves on Tuesday that reworked both the active roster and the practice squad left one spot still to be filled. After promoting safety Vince Anderson wide receiver Dezmon Briscoe and guard Brandon Carter to the 53-man roster, the team used two of those subsequent practice squad openings to sign wide receiver Ed Gant and defensive end E.J. Wilson.
The remaining practice squad vacancy was filled on Wednesday when the Buccaneers re-signed center/guard John Malecki, a rookie out of the University of Pittsburgh who previously spent three weeks in Tampa.
Malecki, who first entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent with the Tennessee Titans this past spring, signed with the Buccaneers the first time on October 26 and was eventually released on November 17 when the team brought in defensive tackle Frank Okam. At Pittsburgh, the 6-2, 304-pound Malecki played in 40 games with 27 starts, all but one of those starts coming after his switch from defensive tackle to the O-line for his junior campaign. In 2008 and 2009, he started 26 consecutive games at right guard for the Panthers, winning first-team all-conference honors as a senior.
Malecki can take comfort in knowing that any good work he puts in on the practice field will definitely be noticed. The Buccaneers have used that crew as a conduit to add talent to the 53-man roster all season. For instance, the team's confidence in practice squad linemen Derek Hardman, Will Barker and Brandon Carter early in the season was one of the reasons they felt comfortable releasing veteran guard Keydrick Vincent in October.
Those three linemen, in fact, have all since been promoted to the 53-man roster. Overall, the Bucs have moved eight players up from the practice squad to the active roster at some point this season: Anderson, Barker, Briscoe, Carter, Hardman, Okam, fullback Erik Lorig and tight end Ryan Purvis. In addition, two current Buccaneers – cornerback Larry Asante and defensive tackle Al Woods – were signed directly to the 53-man roster from other team's practice squads.
"It starts from the bottom up," said Morris. "That practice squad where we got a lot of the guys that are on our team now – the Hardmans, the Barkers, the Brandon Carters – all those guys drove the bus pretty strong. That made everybody else better around them and just helped that room. So now when people move up and assume those roles as starters or have to go in and play it just helps with continuity."