Jeremy Trueblood is one of only six players who have started all 15 games for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers so far in 2011. He won't make it to 16.
Trueblood, the Buccaneers' starting right tackle, suffered a concussion last Saturday against the Carolina Panthers and has not practiced at all this week. On Friday, Head Coach Raheem Morris confirmed that the sixth-year lineman has already been ruled out for Sunday's season finale in Atlanta. The start will go to either James Lee, who opened nine of the last 10 games at that position in 2010, or Demar Dotson, whose only career start came earlier this year as an extra tight end.
Dotson may have the inside track for the start, as he has been active on game day for the last five weeks while Lee has been inactive.
"James Lee, Dotson, both of those guys," said Head Coach Raheem Morris, regarding who would replace Trueblood. "Dotson kind of has been the guy that has had the helmet on so he will have the first crack at it. We'll see what he is going to do and James Lee obviously will play some as well."
Three of those six players who have started every game so far for Tampa Bay are part of the offensive line, which has been something of a bright spot for the team this year. Trueblood, left tackle Donald Penn and right guard Davin Joseph have been dependable performers for the Buccaneers all year; Joseph was just named to his second Pro Bowl.
That's in stark contrast to the 2010 season, when every original starter on the offensive line missed games due to injury except for Penn. Of course, that served to bolster the team's depth on the line moving forward, as such reserves as Lee, Ted Larsen and Derek Hardman all saw extensive playing time. The Bucs haven't had to shuffle the line much this year – Jeremy Zuttah replaced Larsen at left guard early and Jeff Faine missed some time due to injury – but they will have to adjust a little bit to play the season finale.
There may be some adjustments necessary along the defensive line, as well, as has been obvious throughout the week of practice. On Wednesday, D-linemen Michael Bennett (toe), Albert Haynesworth (knee), Roy Miller (back) and Brian Price (ankle) all sat out practice, and Adrian Clayborn (hamstring) was limited. On Thursday, Haynesworth and Miller returned to full participation but Clayborn was held out entirely. On Friday, Bennett and Clayborn participated fully in practice and Price saw his first action of the week, but Haynesworth once again sat out.
It's difficult to find any lineup clarity in all that up-and-down movement, so it's likely that the starting four up front won't be determined until everybody has had a chance to test out their legs on the Georgia Dome turf on Sunday.
"Obviously you just have to look at all those guys and see what's what," said Morris. "Those guys you really want to roll the dice with."
There was some helpful evidence on the Buccaneers' Friday injury report, which included game-status designations (doubtful, questionable, etc.) for the first time. Bennett, Haynesworth and Price have all been identified as questionable to play in the game, while Clayborn and Miller are both probable.
Wide receiver Arrelious Benn is the fourth Buccaneer who goes into the weekend with that questionable tag, due to a neck injury he sustained in Carolina. Benn did not participate in any of the team's practices this week.
Another Milestone for Barber
In addition to Trueblood and his O-line cohorts, the three Buccaneers who have started every game this season are Clayborn (at right defensive end), strong safety Sean Jones and right cornerback Ronde Barber. Those three are definitely not listed in order of longest streaks.
Barber, in fact, has started 198 consecutive games, dating back to the 1999 season. That's the longest streak ever by a cornerback in NFL history, and the second-longest streak for any player in franchise history. LB Derrick Brooks started the final 208 games of his 14-year NFL career, all with Tampa Bay.
Barber would have to return for another season to catch Brooks in that category, but he is set to pass his former Pro Bowl teammate on another record table on Sunday. Barber will play in his 225th game this weekend, all with the Buccaneers, more than any other player in team history. Until Sunday, he will share the mark of 224 with Brooks.
Barber first joined the Buccaneers as a third-round draft pick out of Virginia in 1997. As unrelentingly stellar as his career has been since 1998, his rookie campaign wasn't so smooth. He played in only one game during the regular season, against the Arizona Cardinals, and performed shakily enough to find himself back on the inactive list for the rest of the fall. However, he showed improvement in practice and actually took over the starting nickel back job in time for the Bucs' playoff game in Green Bay.
The rest is history. Buccaneer history.
Barber hasn't missed a game since the 1998 opener, hasn't missed a start since the middle of 1999 and has never sat out a game due to injury. He is the only player in NFL history to have recorded at least 40 interceptions AND 25 sacks in his career. He has scored 14 touchdowns, playoffs included, including 11 on interceptions and fumble returns during the regular season. That's tied for the fourth-highest total in NFL history.
And he just keeps going. On a roster that has been the NFL's youngest for the last two years, Barber is an anomaly. At age 36, he is still performing like a player 10 years younger, and he still approaches the game like he's a rookie trying to hold on to a roster spot.
"I honestly come on the field every day feeling like there's something that I'm not doing good enough and I have to work on it," he said. "To think back to those [earlier] days, I was doing the same thing.
He has managed to do remain productive thanks to that unyielding dedication to his craft and his fitness, but it was certainly no foregone conclusion that he would still be playing a decade and a half after he was drafted.
"I wouldn't have expected this even five years ago," he said. "But I've been able to maintain. I've been able to continue to perform at a level that everybody thinks is satisfactory. It's been good. It's been a good run and I'm glad to be where I'm at."
As for whether or not he'll get an opportunity to surpass Brooks in both consecutive starts and overall starts in franchise history next fall, Barber said he still has not determined if he wants to try.
"Next year is next year," he said. "Who knows? Maybe I'll be sitting on my couch. Maybe I'll be back here playing with these young cats. We'll see. At this point, yeah, I feel like I could play another year but we'll see what January and February have to hold before I make any decision."
One thing Barber made clear is that the current makeup of the roster would not deter him from continuing to play. He has been around long enough to see just about everything, and while this season has certainly not been nearly as satisfying as some of the ones earlier in his career, from a team standpoint, he still finds pleasure in trying to build another dominant defense like the one he used to play on with Brooks and company.
"It does seem like a long time ago," said Barber of the era that produced the team's first Super Bowl trophy, almost a decade ago. "It seems like a lifetime ago, to be honest with you. It's been a lifetime ago for a number of years. To be honest with you, it almost seems like a different career. There have been lots of changes since then, our philosophy in the building, definitely the way we play defense. It's not the same. I've learned to adapt. That was a time. That was a memory. I don't even know where my Super Bowl ring is anymore. This is new. I enjoy building."