C Jeff Faine helped the Bucs' offensive line open impressive holes for the running game in Sunday's opener
As impressive as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' offense was in its 2009 season opener on Sunday, it also suffered a major loss that could affect its ability to sustain that success in the coming weeks.
On Monday, Head Coach Raheem Morris revealed that starting center Jeff Faine, recognized as one of the team's most critical players on offense, sustained a triceps strain in his left (non-snapping) arm against the Dallas Cowboys that will force him to miss "a few weeks."
Because the injury will not require surgery, the exact prognosis for Faine's recovery is difficult to nail down at this point. Faine is a tough player who can perform through discomfort, but it's not yet certain how long it will take him to regain the necessary functions in the arm to be able to play at an acceptable level. However, it is certain that Faine will miss next week's game at Buffalo, so the Buccaneers are hurriedly exploring the possible options at center.
"We're going to look on our roster and off our roster," said Morris. "We've got some guys. [Jonathan] Compas came in yesterday and finished off the game for us. We've got guys on the roster and we also have guys off the roster that we've got to keep an eye out for."
Compas played in the fourth quarter after Faine's injury and helped the Bucs' sustain a 72-yard drive that culminated in Kellen Winslow's touchdown catch. An undrafted rookie out of Cal-Davis, Compas joined the Buccaneers as a waiver claim in the final week of the preseason after he was released by the Oakland Raiders.
A third-team AP All-American in 2008, Compas operated in a zone-blocking scheme similar to what the Buccaneers use during his four years at Cal-Davis. He also notices some overlap in schemes and terminology from the offense he learned while with in Oakland and that of the Buccaneers. Still, he knows he has some busy days ahead of him if the Bucs decide to start him during Faine's absence.
You've just always got to be ready to step up," he said. "It is a lot to absorb in a short time. I was in Oakland before this and we ran a West Coast offense and some of the technology carries over. Obviously, at the same time there's a lot of things to learn so I've got to have a steep learning curve, especially this week."
The Buccaneers gained 450 yards of total offense against the Cowboys and received outstanding play from the offensive line, as evidenced by the 174 rushing yards and zero sacks allowed. Morris believes the team will be able to maintain that success even during Faine's absence, but doesn't minimize what the team will be missing without their veteran center on the field.
"It's just his intensity, him starting the game," said Morris. "He kind of fires me up, looking at him in the pregame. He fires me up looking at him in the game. [He has] the knowledge; [we] know how smart he is, how well-prepared he is, how good of a professional he is. That's exactly what he is: He's a pro. He's a professional athlete and he treats his job like a professional. He teaches his room how to be a professional. That's a huge loss, losing a guy like Faine. Huge."
The Buccaneers could also choose to fill the void at center by shifting starting left guard Jeremy Zuttah to the middle and inserting another reserve, perhaps Marcus Johnson, at guard. Johnson played left guard for a brief period against the Cowboys on Sunday after Zuttah suffered a minor left ankle sprain. Zuttah did re-enter the game in fourth quarter and said the ankle felt better on Monday morning than he had expected.
Zuttah took snaps at center during the Bucs' first mini-camp during the 2009 offseason but has since played almost exclusively at guard in the absence of 2008 starter Arron Sears. Still, given his demonstrated versatility, Zuttah could get the call to slide over one spot.
"Whatever they ask, I'm willing to do," he said. "It would just take some adjusting, that's all."
The Bucs may look for reinforcements along the line no matter what the final solution to Faine's absence proves to be. Behind the original starting five, the team's depth on the O-line consisted of Johnson, a fifth-year player who was also claimed off waivers from the Raiders in the final preseason week, and three undrafted rookies (Compas, Marc Dile and Demar Dotson).
Besides Faine and Zuttah, the only other player Morris identified as having an injury worth watching after Sunday's game was wide receiver Antonio Bryant. Bryant did not sustain a new injury but rather missed time late in the game as he dealt with soreness in the knee that required arthroscopic surgery in early August. Morris said that the Buccaneers would have to monitor Bryant's knee each week but did not indicate that he is expected to miss any time.