The Bucs will feel better about WR Charles Lee's availability on Sunday if he can put two pain-free practices together
Jon Gruden knows he still has friends in Tampa, even if the numbers have dwindled a bit in recent weeks. Frequent calls to his office let him know that the support is still there.
And Gruden knows he and his Tampa Bay Buccaneers have critics. It doesn't take a private office number for them to be heard. One of them, in fact, can be found in his mirror.
Believe it or not, Gruden is happy to have both groups.
"I'm my own worst critic, so I don't need anybody else's criticism – yet I appreciate it," he said. "You get criticized when you're 0-3, and until we start playing better we're not going to win. I appreciate the concern and the criticism; I've also gotten a lot of support and for that I'm very thankful, as well. We're going to keep working as hard as we can. We're going to do all we can to get this team back into shape as soon as we can."
That process began on Wednesday, when the Bucs held their first practice in preparation for Sunday's visit from the 2-1 Denver Broncos. They did so without Charlie Garner and Rickey Dudley, though Michael Pittman was back in pads. They did so not knowing if the team's horrible run of injuries had an end in sight. But they did not go back to work without hope.
"We've had a lot of bad fortune here with the injuries," said Gruden. "We've been in three competitive football games and there is a lot of football left to play.
"We're not dying. All is not lost. We've got a lot of heartbeat on this football team and I think we have a lot of character. We just need some players to step up given our injury situation, that's all."
That was obvious even on the practice field Wednesday. The team re-signed receiver Marcus Knight in part to develop another kick return option, which seemed necessary given the hamstring strain that kept Frank Murphy out of Sunday night's game. Murphy was not improved enough on Wednesday for Gruden to know if he would be available this weekend against Denver.
That injury also thins out a receiving corps that hasn't been able to catch a break since July. Joe Jurevicius is on the non-football-injury list due to back surgery and Joey Galloway is out for an extended period with a groin injury suffered in the season opener. Edell Shepherd, one of the team's most promising young players, had a stellar camp interrupted by a broken foot; he's on injured reserve.
Murphy hasn't played much receiver for the Bucs, but he certainly could have been an option if any of the men in front of him was unable to go. And, as a matter of fact, the team is still not certain about the status of wide receiver Charles Lee.
Lee missed most of training camp and the preseason with a hamstring pull, then played a relatively good amount of time in the preseason finale in Houston. Since, however, he has seen little action despite the Bucs' limited options. That's because Lee has quietly continued to struggle with that preseason injury.
"He has not practiced back-to-back days," said Gruden, though he did confirm that Lee made it through Wednesday's workout without issue. "He had a lingering hamstring problem Wednesday and Thursday (of last week) and we didn't feel he was ready to go. We didn't want him to have another set-back. We had already lost Frank Murphy; we're running out of guys. For that reason, he has not played an awful lot yet.
Lee was active for the last two games, and he's seen action here and there, catching two passes for 46 yards. He could assume a larger role if the rest of the week goes well.
"If he finishes tomorrow like he did today, you'll see more of him," said Gruden. "But we're not holding him out for help. We need his play; we need him on the grass. But if we rush him back and lose him, we might be putting in the wishbone here soon."
Gruden obviously has retained his sense of humor along with his optimism – the products of a coach's thick skin, obviously. But if the Bucs' did want to install that ultra-conservative attack, at least they would have another runner on hand to make it go. Pittman's return from a three-game suspension, timed as it was to follow immediately in the wake of Garner's injury, will at least keep the team from scrambling to find a replacement.
Gruden stopped short of calling it good timing, however. Rather, Pittman's return is too late to allow the team to unleash some of the more interesting backfield options it had worked on during the offseason.
"I don't know if that's 'right' or 'good,'" said Gruden of the Pittman news and its timing. "We expected [Garner and Pittman] to play together. But it's good to have him back. There's no question we've missed Mike and he's a guy we're going to lean on right now."
Pittman will need to get his timing and feel for the game back in a hurry, because the Bucs hope to put him to good use against the Broncos. That's one of the things the team is working on this week. There are other focal points: Denver's hugely improved pass defense, Jake Plummer's mobility, the Broncos always-effective offensive line, etc.
That's what practice is for. And the Bucs hit the field with as much enthusiasm and intent this Wednesday as they have for the past three. After all, out there the only critics are the men with the whistles.