T Paul Gruber has been one of the most important players in franchise history
'A costly victory.' That's a popular phrase for an unpopular situation, and a perfect description of Tampa Bay's Sunday in Chicago. The Buccaneers defeated the Bears 20-6 to win the NFC Central title, but sustained a significant loss when stalwart veteran tackle Paul Gruber suffered a broken leg.
Late in the third quarter at Soldier Field, Gruber had to be taken off the field on a cart after breaking the tibia in his right leg. After a moment on the field, Gruber attempted to stand but fell back to the field when it was clear that his leg could not support him due to the fracture in the larger of the two bones in his lower leg.
Gruber was able to come back on the team plane, which left Chicago at approximately 7:00 p.m. EST. Transported to the airport in a police car behind the team's caravan of buses, Gruber then had to be carried up the ramp to the plane by DE Marcus Jones and T Pete Pierson. Pierson will also carry on for Gruber on the field as the Buccaneers' replacement at left tackle.
Gruber sustained a somewhat unusual break to his tibia when a Chicago player fell on his leg from the side, in that the fracture occurred very close to the knee, at the top of the bone. When the team arrived back in Tampa, he was taken off the plane by paramedics and was scheduled to have the leg set on Sunday evening. Obviously, Gruber will not return for the playoffs.
"We feel so bad for him," said Head Coach Tony Dungy during the team's plane flight back to Tampa. "He's been working toward this for 12 years and now he's not going to be playing when we finally get there. He has meant so much to this program…it's just a shame. But he is handling it very well. He's a very strong person."
Drafted in the first round (sixth overall) in 1988, Gruber is the only player remaining on the team from the 1980s. He finished the 1999 season with 183 games played and 183 starts, both team records. Tampa Bay's record in those 183 games is an unspectacular 66-117, meaning Gruber experienced quite a bit of losing before being part of the turnaround under Dungy. He has played in just two postseason games, both after the 1997 season, when the Bucs beat Detroit in the Wild Card round but lost to Green Bay in the divisional round. That fact makes Gruber's injury tougher to swallow.
Pierson, who has appeared in 69 games as a Buccaneer, has not started a game since 1996. He opened two games during a less severe Gruber injury that season, and also started four contests at right tackle in 1995. Though he had played only on special teams before entering the game on Sunday, he is a strong replacement, in Dungy's opinion.
"Every time Pete Pierson plays, he has played well," said Dungy. "He just happens to have spent the past four years backing up a guy that never misses a snap. We have a lot of confidence in Pete."
Though he didn't finish Sunday's contest, it was his 59th consecutive start and it marked the 10th time in 12 professional seasons that he has played in and started every game. He is the Buccaneer record holder in just about every category of longevity and is considered a quiet but important team leader. Though he will continue to share in the team's upcoming playoff run, the premier tackle in Buccaneer history will not be able to take the field. That is indeed a costly loss.