After nearly a one-year hiatus, Tampa Bay wide receiver Joe Jurevicius is ready to return to action on Sundays.
Jurevicius, who played an integral role in Tampa Bay's Super Bowl run in 2002 by catching 37 passes for 423 yards and two touchdowns, has been sidelined for nearly a year with a sprained MCL he suffered in Week 2 of the 2003 season and a herniated disc in his back that he sustained while rehabbing his knee during the offseason.
But after undergoing surgery to repair the back injury in early August and spending the first six weeks of the season on the PUP (physically unable to perform) list, Jurevicius is ready to play against the Chicago Bears. It will be the first time the 6-foot-5, 230-pound receiver plays in a game since November 30.
"I'm excited," said Jurevicius. "It's like being a rookie and going into my first game. It's been such a long time. I know I have some things to offer this team and I am looking forward to doing it."
Jurevicius, who hadn't been able to practice at full speed since September 2003, which is when his serious knee injury occurred, participated in Wednesday's workout at One Buccaneer Place. According to Bucs head coach Jon Gruden, Jurevicius fared well.
"I thought he looked good," Gruden said of Jurevicius. "That's what we're paid to do -- get winded. Work hard and get winded. It's great to have him back. He's paid a great price with the rehab. The back, the knee -- it's been a crisis for him, certainly. But he's going to play in this game, and hopefully he plays a lot.
"I'm excited about Jurevicius. I've missed him and our team has missed him. I know our fans have missed him. This guy adds a lot of juice to our football team, and if he's right physically he'll make some plays and he'll help us in games. But it's great to have him back here. He's worked his heart out to get himself back in this position. It's a credit to him and his wife and we're glad to have him out here."
After rehabbing his injured knee for a little over eight weeks, Jurevicius attempted to make a comeback against the New York Giants in Nov. 2003, but after two games, the receiver's knee was not healthy enough to continue, which prompted the Bucs to place Jurevicius on injured reserve.
Jurevicius suffered another setback when he herniated a disc in his back this offseason. Ironically, the back injury was likely caused by Jurevicius' attempt to rehab his injured knee.
"I don't think there is any doubt that my back injury stemmed from my knee," Jurevicius said of his back injury. "It's just compensations for good knee, bad knee and months of rehab. Things get out of whack. It happened to get out of whack at an inopportune time. There's nothing I can do. I don't want to look back. We are 1-5 right now. There is still some light at the end of the tunnel. Let's worry about the Chicago Bears coming in here. Maybe I can add a spark. I have never considered myself a savior. I consider myself a guy who loves playing football."
A lot has changed since the last time Jurevicius took the field completely healthy. That occurred in Week 2 of the 2003 season when the Bucs, who had won Super Bowl XXXVII in January, were off to a 1-0 start after Jurevicius hauled two touchdown passes to help beat the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 1, 17-0.
But in Week 2 against the Carolina Panthers, Jurevicius was in the wrong place at the wrong time when fullback Mike Alstott's momentum forced him to violently collide with Jurevicius' knee, causing what turned out to be a season-ending injury.
Since that injury, the Bucs have compiled a 7-14 record and parted ways with wide receivers Keyshawn Johnson and Keenan McCardell, and benched quarterback Brad Johnson.
Needless to say, watching games from the sideline has been tough for Jurevicius.
"The struggle started last year for us and for whatever reason, it is continuing right now," said Jurevicius. "Anytime you have to sit on the sideline and watch that or sit in the locker room and watch the demeanor of the team, knowing that I could go out there and do something, it's difficult. I am looking forward to going out there. I am going to absorb that. I am going to treat as if it is my first time playing in the NFL. I am going enjoy the fans. I am going to enjoy the grass. I am going to enjoy putting my helmet on, having the opportunity to catch a football and hit somebody."
Although Johnson is on the bench, Tampa Bay's new starting quarterback, Brian Griese, is a player Jurevicius is familiar with, and vice versa.
"It's great to have Joe back," said Griese. "I haven't played with him in the NFL. My only experience with Joe is in the Hula Bowl when we came out of college and played together. We had a great time. He caught a couple touchdown passes, but more importantly he threw a touchdown pass to me. Maybe we can work that out in the game plan this week."
Tampa Bay's offense has played well over the past two weeks, producing over 300 yards in each of its last two games, but it still ranks 24th overall. Jurevicius hopes to help the offense in any way he can while not getting caught up in trying to do too much.
"I know it is hard after being out for a year, almost a year, but this is something I love doing," Jurevicius said. "It makes it easier to know, that although I have been away from it for a while, I have an opportunity to go out there now and add my spice and my flavor to this mix and hopefully, create a spark that can eventually lead to an explosion."
Because of WR Charles Lee's knee injury, Jurevicius could not only find himself back on the field Sunday, but he could also be in the starting lineup. Gruden suggested a decision on who will start at the split-end (X) position will come later in the week or perhaps on game day.
"We'll make that decision later in the week, Gruden said of Jurevicius, who has started 19 of the 79 games he's played in during his seven-year career. "Obviously Charles is doubtful, so it looks as though we'll need a new starter. Whether it's Bill Schroeder or Joe Jurevicius, we'll determine on how the week unfolds."
COX LEADS LEAGUE IN KICKOFF RETURN AVERAGE:
Tampa Bay cornerback Torrie Cox has made quite a impact, but it hasn't come on defense.
Instead, Cox, a second-year player out of Pittsburgh, has solidified Tampa Bay's kickoff return position by returning 13 kickoffs for 388 yards (29.8 avg.). Cox's return average is currently the NFL's best.
The Bucs were concerned about that position after wide receiver Frank Murphy suffered a ruptured Achilles' tendon in Week 4 and was lost for the season with the injury, which required surgery. But Cox has since picked up where Murphy, who was averaging 26 yards per return before he was hurt, left off.
"A lot of spark," Bucs head coach Jon Gruden said of what Cox has added as a kickoff returner. "I'm really excited about the emergence of some young players here, the class of '03 -- Chris Simms, Torrie Cox, Dewayne White is playing and playing better. And this rookie class we're very excited about, obviously.
According to Gruden, Cox, whom the Bucs selected in the sixth-round of the 2003 NFL Draft, will soon get some game reps as a nickel corner, a position that's been occupied by Mario Edwards for the first six games of the season.
"Torrie Cox is not only making plays in the kicking game, he's getting better out here as a corner and he'll start playing some snaps as a nickel back as well," said Gruden.
Cox, who returned four kickoffs for 159 yards (38.0 avg.), including a 44- and 59-yarder against the St. Louis Rams on Monday night, said he was confident he could be an effective kickoff returner when Murphy went down.
"I knew if I had a chance to get on special teams on the kick return, I could make it happen," said Cox. "I did it in college and it was fun. It is starting to be fun right now because I am getting a lot of big holes. The line is holding up their blocks and things are just popping open."
Cox credits his instincts as a former running back and the team's blockers for his success as a kickoff returner thus far.
"I was a running back in high school, so I am using that same vision while I am out there running," said Cox. "My blockers are opening it up for me and I am making that cut; making the right cut. That right cut is what is going to get us in good field position."
Cox's rookie campaign was cut short by a season-ending injury of his own. After putting together a strong training camp, Cox tore his left ACL in Tampa Bay's second preseason game. Not only has he worked his way back on to the field, but now Cox is playing an important role on the field on game day.
"It's been tough," Cox said of coming back from his knee injury. "I worked hard to get back. I am a player who can make plays. I like to be on the field and be a part of the team, be a part of the win; be a part of the loss; however it goes. It has been working fine with the help of God. I am feeling really good right now."
The Bucs will be feeling even better if Cox can return a kickoff for a touchdown, something that hasn't been done in 1,672 attempts.
QUOTE OF THE DAY:
Bucs head coach Jon Gruden on the perception that he doesn't like rookies:
"That perception started in Tampa. Maybe you gave it, I don't know. I didn't have a problem with Charles Woodson and Sebastian Janikowski and Mo Collins and Jon Ritchie. I never had a problem with that perception until I moved to Tampa. I like good players, and I like great players a little bit more. Michael Clayton's a good player and we're excited about him, and Marquise Cooper. We're excited about Chris Simms, we're excited about Jermaine Phillips -- so cover that news."
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