C Jeff Christy practiced Wednesday with a cast on his right hand, but the cast was removed immediately after practice
As the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' first-team offense approached the line of scrimmage during Wednesday's practice, center Jeff Christy reached down with his left hand and picked up the football.
Christy, of course, is right-handed, so this was a completely new way for a Tampa Bay play to begin. It got stranger when Christy passed the ball backward to quarterback Brad Johnson before the offense was even set.
A trick play?
Hardly. NFL referees would never let the Bucs get away with starting a play in that manner, but the team's coaches were willing to make that concession on Wednesday in order to limit the strain on Christy's sprained right thumb.
Since every offensive play begins in the center's snapping hand, an injury to that thumb could be a cause for significant concern.
It isn't. Head Coach Tony Dungy explained that the practice concessions, which also included some extra protection on Christy's hand, were nothing more than precautionary, and probably only in effect on Wednesday.
"We tried to keep from aggravating it snapping, so we kind of worked around that," said Dungy. "But he's going to be fine."
Christy sprained the thumb mildly during Sunday's game against Detroit, but didn't miss a single snap and didn't even inform the training staff until after the contest was over. Head Trainer Todd Toriscelli put a cast on Christy's right hand, but not until approximately 2:00 p.m. on Wednesday, and he took it off immediately afterward.
That was almost all there was to discuss in terms of injury after this mid-December practice, a surprisingly positive development. Prior to the workout, Dungy had identified only three players that might miss the Wednesday afternoon session, and Christy, who did practice, was one of those three.
"We really don't have a lot of serious injuries," said Dungy. "(Wide receiver) Keyshawn (Johnson)'s got an ankle sprain and we'll see what he can do today. Jeff Christy has a sprained thumb that's going to inhibit his snapping a little bit but shouldn't bother him playing. Eric Vance has swelling in his knee. Those are the only three guys that may miss a practice."
Johnson, in fact, did take the afternoon off, but only on the trainers' insistence. He has missed a practice or two in many recent weeks but has always played on Sunday, to uniformly excellent results. Vance, who made a key recovery of an onside kick against the Lions, is the only player listed as 'questionable' or worse on the Bucs' official injury report, but even his condition doesn't concern Dungy too much.
"Keyshawn went through the walk-through this morning and Todd just felt it would be best to keep him out," said Dungy. "There's a really good chance he'll practice on Thursday. We're hoping to have Eric Vance, at the latest, by Friday. I really think there's a good chance we'll have all our guys back healthy by game time."
Linebacker Jeff Gooch, who missed last week's practices and then the game due to a hamstring strain, practiced Wednesday without issue. That means, if Johnson and Vance are able to return Thursday or Friday, the Bucs could have all of their active players on the field at the same practice for the first time since the beginning of training camp. That could provide quite a boost down the playoff stretch drive.
"We're fortunate that way," agreed Dungy. "That's what you want, you want to get healthy at the right time and hopefully we are."
Good health combined with good weather and good focus on Wednesday to produce one of those productive late-season practices that Dungy believes is a factor in his team's annual hot finishes.
"Practice was pretty good," he said. "I think we understand the urgency of the situation. We're looking forward to going to Chicago and I thought we had good effort today.
"I think we'll be ready - going on the road to a team that's ahead of us. They beat us down here before. We've got a lot of incentive. Just the way the race is shaping up we know we can't afford to lose. There's every reason to go up and play well and the teams are very familiar with each other so it should be a well-played game."
Simeon Rice, a native of Chicago and a two-time Illinois state champ as a prep on the gridiron, has never played a professional game in Soldier Field. So, of course, the overwhelming feeling that Rice gets upon contemplating this weekend's trip to that legendary football house is…
That's what Rice said on Wednesday and, actually, for good reason. Rice did play in Soldier Field, and played very well, while starring at the University of Illinois, and he grew up rooting for the home town Bears. As important as this game is to his team's playoff chances this season, the Bucs' game in Chicago is also a homecoming to which Rice has looked forward.
"It's going to be a nostalgic feeling," he said. "It's a big game. I'm going back home. I'm excited. I'll be able to see my family and play a game in front of them to the best of my ability. There are a lot things going into this game. There are a lot of factors that we need this game."
At Chicago's Mt. Carmel High School, Rice was a prep track teammate of current Philadelphia quarterback Donovan McNabb, and an accomplished basketball player. However, football was his true love, and he helped Mt. Carmel go 26-2 over his last two seasons, earning all-state honors. Like any high school player, he surely dreamed of suiting up for the home team.
"There are a bunch of childhood memories (in Soldier Field)," said Rice. "Watching the Bears play in that stadium, so right there invokes a lot of deep feelings. So I want to go out there and perform well."
During his junior season at Illinois, at the beginning of a 16-sack campaign, Rice did get a chance to test the conditions in the famously wind-swept field off Lakeshore Drive. He must have found them to his liking, as he whipped Washington State for five sacks during a 10-9 Illini loss on September 1, 1994.
"In college, I played one of my best games there," he recalled. "I want to go back and reproduce those things that I did in the past and give the people that haven't seen me play up close and personal since high school something to watch."
Rice claims to be completely unconcerned about the possibility of bad weather; he seemed almost surprised to be asked, as a matter of fact.
"I'm from Chicago, so it doesn't matter," he said. "I've been in 110 and I've been in sub-zero. All that matters is that we go in there and take care of business. It's not really a factor for me."
To the question of whether his blood has 'thinned' after playing six NFL seasons in such balmy locales as Phoenix and Tampa, Rice just shook his head and grinned.
"Neither has my heart," he said.
Rice's first pro game in Soldier Field is also the Buccaneers' last intra-division contest as a member of the NFC Central. Tampa Bay will shift to the new NFC South in 2002, leaving the four Midwestern teams of the Black-and-Blue division to fight among themselves. That means far fewer trips to Chicago, Green Bay, Minnesota and Detroit.
Though they won in Soldier Field in 1998 and '99, the Bucs have a largely dismal track record there. One expects the Bucs to get fired up for a shot to leave Chicago with good memories, but safety John Lynch says there is no needed for added motivation. Some of the Bucs' incentive might be a little personal, stemming from the final moments of November's game in Tampa, which ended on Martin Gramatica's missed 48-yard field goal.
"There are a number of motivating factors this weekend, first and foremost the fact that we're still trying to secure a playoff position for us," said Lynch. "This is a huge game in that, but the fact that it's our last game in this division, that means something to the guys that have played in the division for a long time and appreciate the tradition that it stands for. I think also the fact that they came into our house and beat us – I'll still remember after the game some of those guys in Martin's face and the coach getting in our corner's face on the sideline. Some of those things, they certainly stick with you. There's a ton of motivation for us this week."
On the other hand, the Bucs haven't paid much attention to what was said after the teams cleared the field. When reminded of some apparently uncomplimentary postgame thoughts from Bears quarterback Jim Miller, linebacker Derrick Brooks waved the issue off.
"What he had to say really has no merit," said Brooks. "Winning the war on the field is all that matters. What he has to say, who cares? We've got to go out there and play the game and win, and that's the only way we'll win the war of words."