Head Coach Jon Gruden has seen the effort and focus he was hoping for on the practice field in the week following the Buccaneers' bye
Sundays, Jon Gruden recently said, are for the players.
Gruden's point: An NFL coaching staff gets Monday through Saturday to prepare its men for the challenges of the upcoming game day, but once the ball is kicked it's the players who will determine the outcome.
The biggest challenge for Gruden and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' staff this week, during their time to make a difference, is easing the team out of bye-week mode and back into the fast lane that is an NFL season.
The Buccaneers did an outstanding job of that last year, firing out of their off week with a 31-7 dismantling of the Atlanta Falcons, followed by two more wins over Washington and New Orleans that pushed the team into December with a great chance to win the division. That doesn't mean it was easy.
Gruden is not a big fan of the bye week concept, to put it mildly, and this week's challenge is the main reason. He'd rather not see engine idled down after he's spent the bulk of three or four months trying to get the players operating at peak efficiency.
"I don't like the bye, and I'm not going to complain about it, but you're playing every day, twice a day in July and August, and then once a day every day you're here with these guys," said Gruden. "Then all of a sudden everybody disappears and then you have to try to get back to reality. It's a challenge for everybody, I think."
It was a bigger challenge than usual for the Buccaneers because this year, for the first time since he arrived in 2002, Gruden essentially gave the players an entire week off. The move was necessary for a roster struggling with a long list of injuries, but it also increased the possibility that players would lose some of their edge.
The solution? A wake-up practice on Monday that included some live work in pads for the first time in recent memory. There were several other motivating factors for that type of practice – mainly a desire to get running back Cadillac Williams some game-like work before he came off the PUP list – but a fortunate additional advantage was that it seemed to rejuvenate all of the players.
"Our guys really responded to it," Gruden enthused. "These players can say what they want but they love football and they've got a lot of respect for each other and they want to help each other and they want to win. I was really impressed with the practice we had Monday. It was a physical practice and I think the guys liked it. I think they expected it and wanted it."
The team has actually had to slow things down a bit since that Monday practice, but not much. Jermaine Phillips (forearm), Alex Smith (ankle) and Brian Griese (elbow) were held out of practice on Thursday but the rest of the team put on a spirited two-hour practice in the afternoon. The healthier post-bye roster is at least one result of the off time that Gruden can appreciate.
"I think the only advantages for us was that we got some guys a couple days to maybe get ready to play in a game," he said. "It helped out Arron Sears and Warrick Dunn and Earnest Graham and Alex Smith – these guys are critical parts of our team. I think obviously the bye week came at the right time for [Graham]. And Warrick appeared quick, so we're counting on those guys at this point."
Home in the South
The NFC South has been a home team's heaven so far in 2008.
Amazingly, the four teams in the division have lost just a single home game between them in 18 tries. No other division in the NFL has a total of less than five home losses.
Guess who the lone road team was to head south and snatch away a victory? That's right – the Minnesota Vikings, who eked out a 30-27 win in New Orleans in Week 5.
Furthermore, the Vikings also notched a victory against the Carolina Panthers in Week 3, although that game was played in the Metrodome.
Gruden said he was well aware of the Vikings' success against the NFC South thus far, including that lone road win the division has surrendered.
"Minnesota beat New Orleans on the road," Gruden said. "Minnesota has done well against the South. They had a very good win against Carolina and a very good win against the Saints. We've got to try to stop that trend."
In trying to thwart the Vikings' plans for NFC South domination, the Bucs will counter with 65,000 raucous pewter-and-red faithful at their backs and a sparkling 4-0 home record.
"We've got an edge," Gruden said of playing in Raymond James Stadium. "We will have an edge. We've won four in a row at home this year. That doesn't guarantee anything, but so far so good."
Three of the six NFL teams that are still undefeated at home through 10 weeks are in the NFC South. Of those six, the Titans, Giants and Panthers are in the lead with five home wins. If the Bucs can get to that total with a win over Minnesota on Sunday, it would mark a first-time accomplishment for the franchise. In its 33-season history, Tampa Bay has never made it to 5-0 at home.
Clark Gets Another Shot
Brian Clark was on the Buccaneers' active roster when the bye week began and he'll be on it when the team plays its next game on Sunday, but he also spent a week back on the practice squad in between.
Fortunately, it was during a week that the Bucs didn't practice.
Clark is back in action when it counts, and there's a decent chance he'll be among the team's 45 active players on game day against Minnesota, just as he was for the Bucs' previous three outings.
"He's a versatile guy who can play all three positions and he plays on special teams," said Gruden. "No matter what anybody tells me, that third, fourth, fifth receiver, that third, fourth, fifth back has to play on special teams, and that goes for the backup linebackers also."
Clark, who spent the first six weeks of the season on the practice squad, was sent back to that crew early in the bye week to make room for re-signed safety Donte Nicholson. However, wide receiver Maurice Stovall landed on injured reserve at the beginning of this week due to his hamstring ailment and the Bucs quickly called Clark back into service.
In the previous three games, Clark contributed one catch for 12 yards, one kickoff return for 22 yards and two tackles on special teams. The Bucs are comfortable with the second-year receiver in all of those roles because they witnessed his versatility in scouting him with the Denver Broncos in 2006 and 2007, his first two years in the league. In 10 games with the Broncos during that time, Clark caught four passes for 23 yards, averaged 22.4 yards on 26 kickoff returns and added a pair of special teams tackles.
When Denver let Clark go in the middle of the '07 season, the Bucs scooped up the Tampa native for their practice squad and then later signed him to the active roster in time for the season finale and their one postseason contest. In his first game as a Buccaneer, Clark made three tackles on special teams.
Stovall's injury is a disappointment for the team, of course, but the presence of Clark makes it easier to swallow.
"If we've accomplished anything here, we've been fair to every player that we've had," said Gruden. "We've pretty much coached every guy on the roster with the intent that they're going to make it and eventually become a starter. Earnest Graham, Donald Penn…you go back to Shelton Quarles and Ryan Nece…a lot of guys have come in and played. [Clark] is another guy that's been scratching the surface for a little over a year with us, and he's earned the right."