CB Donnie Abraham was one of several injured Buccaneers to look good in practice on Thursday, lending Head Coach Tony Dungy hope for Sunday
Dark clouds hung over Tampa, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' practice complex, for most of Wednesday and Thursday, but failed to produce any major rainstorms.
One doesn't necessarily lead to another, especially in this generally dry part of the year for West Florida. Similarly, good work on the One Buc Place practice fields don't always translate into great games on Sunday.
But often they do, according to Tampa Bay Head Coach Tony Dungy, and he'll take those odds most weeks.
On a cool, breezy day, the Buccaneers turned in one of their best midweek efforts of the year Thursday, which seemed to give Dungy some added confidence.
"It was one of our better practices," he said. "I don't know if it's the cool weather or having everyone back, but we had good tempo, pretty good focus and very few mistakes. We haven't had a lot of what I call great practices this year, but this one was close.
"Usually, good practices lead to good games."
After a September and October filled with a variety of key injuries, the Bucs may be finding an island of health just in time for the stretch run. Of the 58 players on the active roster and practice squad, only one, linebacker Nate Webster, did not practice Thursday.
One prominent returnee for the Bucs is defensive tackle Anthony McFarland, who has missed the last two games due to a sprained right knee. McFarland gave the knee a good test with half a practice on Wednesday, then came back on Thursday at full speed. On one late-practice screen play, McFarland was so quick down the line of scrimmage that he drew extensive praise from Defensive Line Coach Rod Marinelli.
"I think he was really confident today," said Dungy. "He went through yesterday's practice and had no soreness today, so I think he felt good coming into today's practice."
On the money, coach.
"I feel pretty good," said McFarland after the two-hour session. "It's a mental thing, and everything was good yesterday so I was just out there flying around today. You can't worry about it, you just have to come out and go full speed.
"Any time you've been forced to miss a few games, you're rarin' to get out there and hit someone."
Fourth-year veteran James Cannida performed well as a starter the past two games, but McFarland's return comes at a good time for the Buccaneers. With the Bears likely to pound rookie running back Anthony Thomas up the middle and also work the outside of the line of scrimmage with receiver screens, a strong but mobile tackle like McFarland could be in the middle of a lot of plays. Dungy wants to have both Cannida and McFarland at his disposal against the Bears' offense.
"We're going to need to rotate our guys a lot," said the head coach. "They run a lot and throw a lot of short passes where you're rushing the passer and you have to turn and chase. That will put a premium on having a lot of people ready to go."
Another defensive tackle, Warren Sapp, returned to practice on Thursday after sitting out the Wednesday session. Dungy said Sapp's Thursday was similar to McFarland's Wednesday, so both tackles should be at full speed on Friday. Sapp had soreness and stiffness in his left knee thanks to a hard rap it took on the Silverdome turf Sunday, but various methods of treatment had him ready to go on Thursday.
"It's just fluid from Sunday," said Sapp of his knee stiffness. "They're working it out, squeezing it out. I took the cool system home and stuck it on there while watching Jordan and Iverson and all the boys last night."
Cornerback Donnie Abraham (low back contusion) had another strong practice on Thursday and wide receiver Jacquez Green (abdomen strain) is 'doing better,' according to Dungy. Even Webster (sore ribs) made a dramatic improvement from Wednesday to Thursday and may be moved up to probable on the injury report with the rest of the players on that list.
"Nate thinks he's going to play," said Dungy. "We'll see. He still couldn't practice today but he's getting better and may be able to go tomorrow.
"We may have our full complement by Sunday."
The infamous 'Heidi Game' tops the NFL Insider's recently released list of the 'Best Regular-Season Games' in league history, but Tampa Bay Buccaneer fans will probably remember game number five more fondly.
Using its own staff's analysis and input from Bill Walsh, Don Shula, Marv Levy and Ron Wolf, NFL Insider, an official league publication, has created a series of 'Best Of…' lists for its November-December issue. These football experts have looked back into the league's 80-year past to chart the best quarterbacks, running backs, coaches, rivalries and more.
One of the most entertaining lists contains NFL Insider's picks for the best regular season games ever, and the Bucs' thrilling, 38-35, Monday Night Football victory over the St. Louis Rams last December comes in fifth.
The Oakland Raiders' 43-32 win over the New York Jets on November 17, 1968 – dubbed the Heidi Game after NBC cut away from the action before the game ended in order to give viewers the beginning of the movie, Heidi - was chosen as the best regular season ever. The Raiders scored two touchdowns in a nine-second span (after the network had switched to Heidi) to take the victory.
After the Heidi Game, Washington's 37-25 win over the Raiders on October 2, 1983 is second on the list, followed by the Kansas City Chiefs' 31-28 win over archrival Denver on October 17, 1994. A late-season matchup of the San Francisco 49ers and the New York Giants, both 10-1 at the time, in 1990 finished in a 7-3 San Fran victory and came in fourth on this list.
And then came the Bucs' game, which was equal parts revenge from the previous year's NFC Championship Game loss in St. Louis and self-preservation in the 2000 run to the playoffs. Perhaps the most exciting game in franchise history, it was described thusly by NFL Insider:
Marshall Faulk scored 4 touchdowns and the Rams overcame a 10-point second-half deficit, but the Buccaneers laughed last thanks to the heads-up play of Shaun King. On the game-winning drive, he turned a potential loss into a 15-yard gain after taking a desperation lateral from Warrick Dunn, and later converted a fourth-and-4 with a 6-yard scrambling run. Dunn (145 rushing yards and 3 touchdowns) scored the game winner with 48 seconds left.
To check out the entire list on NFL.com, please click here.
In its first eight games, the Bucs' offense has already faced defenses ranked first, second (twice) and ninth in the NFL. This week's opponent, Chicago, ranks 13th but is considered another stiff challenge by QB Brad Johnson and the Bucs' attack.
"They have a lot going on over there," said Johnson. "They made some moves in the offseason, especially up front with (Keith) Traylor and (Ted) Washington. So they are not giving up big runs and in the passing game they are stopping people, they are not getting the big passing plays down the field. Seems like a lot of teams are having to put together first downs in a particular drive. They do a great job from that standpoint and they get a lot of safety support with the runs. Their corners they make a lot of tackles."
Chicago, in fact, has allowed only one run of 20 or more yards all season, as compared to six given up by the Bucs' defense, which puts great emphasis on not allowing the big play. Traylor and Washington are two jumbo defensive tackles (675 combined pounds) and starting cornerbacks R.W. McQuarters and Walt Harris are indeed racking up the tackles (69 between them).
The Bucs' running game has been up and down this season, but has generally performed better at home (113.3 yards per game at home, 72.6 yards per game on the road). Whether they can crack Chicago's third-ranked rushing defense may depend not only on execution but on how well the Bucs match the Bears' drive to succeed.
"There is a reason why they are 6-2," said Johnson. "They are playing some good football over there. They have some good players and they are playing with a lot intensity. They're playing hard all over the field and giving themselves a chance to win."