The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were able to breath a sigh of relief Monday when MRI results revealed that fullback Mike Alstott’s season is very much alive.

Alstott, who had to be carted into the locker room during the third quarter of Sunday’s game against Chicago after both of his legs were bent awkwardly while being tackled, will miss four weeks with a sprained MCL (medial collateral ligament) in his right knee.

“Four weeks is what our timetable is right now, depending on how it goes,” Bucs head coach Jon Gruden said of Alstott’s injury and road to recovery. “It is a sprained right MCL. Our timetable right now says four weeks.

“I’m very relieved, obviously, that it’s no more serious than that, although a four-week injury is a serious injury for any running back or any professional athlete. But there is some relief in hearing that news.”

This is the second significant injury Alstott has suffered in as many years. Last season, the “A-Train” was derailed by a herniated disc in his neck that required season-ending surgery. Because of the injury, Alstott only played in four games last season.

The MCL injury is one Alstott is all too familiar with. In 2000, he missed three games with a third degree sprain of the MCL in his left knee. Ironically, that injury came against Chicago, the same team Tampa Bay defeated at Raymond James Stadium Sunday, 19-7.

Replacing Alstott, a six-time Pro Bowl selection who has rushed 37 times for 137 yards (3.7 avg.) and one touchdown and caught 18 passes for 97 yards this season, will not be easy. According to Gruden, the Bucs are exploring some different options, which include giving running back Michael Pittman, who’s coming off a 109-yard rushing performance against the Bears. more carries, particularly in goal-line situations, and possibly activating RB Earnest Graham from the practice squad.

“We were going to look at that carefully and make a decision here who the combination of backs will be for the next game and who gives us a chance to win,” said Gruden. “Pittman will get tired. I just told him again this morning; ‘you will get tired in this offense for the rest of this season.’ And we are going to have some needs for some able replacement. Not to be critical of Jamel White, but somebody needs to step up there and assume a lot of responsibility when Michael leaves the game. Especially, with the absence of Mike Alstott, that will present a great challenge for us.”

There’s also a chance that fullbacks Greg Comella and Jameel Cook will be active on game days. Through the first seven contests of the 2004 regular season, neither player has been activated for the same game.

“That’s something we’ll work on, obviously, here in the next couple weeks,” said Gruden. “Jameel Cook, obviously Greg Comella, who was unable to play yesterday with a pec strain — their roles could be increased. We might look outside to get a back active, although that will be decided later this week.”

With the Bucs entering their bye week, the “A-Train” might only miss three games and could be back for Tampa Bay’s game against Carolina on November 28.

With Tampa Bay now entering its bye week, Buccaneers head coach Jon Gruden said the team will put the time off to good use. Some of the things Gruden hopes to get accomplished during the bye week include getting some players healthy, working on fundamentals and spending a little extra time preparing for the 2-5 Kansas City Chiefs, who helped the Bucs out Sunday by defeating the first-place Atlanta Falcons, 56-10.

“Well, we obviously have some men we need to get healed,” said Gruden. “We need to get some men rejuvenated physically. At the same time, we’ll use Wednesday and Thursday as bonus days to try to work specifically on certain phases of our football team, as well as preparing our team for Kansas City, who’s coming off a rousing victory, to say the least.”

Although Alstott is out for the game against Kansas City, Gruden said wide receivers Joey Galloway (groin) and Charles Lee (knee), and quarterback Chris Simms (shoulder), will be listed as questionable for that contest.

Not all of the fans in attendance for Tampa Bay’s home game and win against Chicago were cheering.

In the first half, Bucs punt returner Tim Brown caught the ire of the fans for choosing to let a punt drop and roll inside the team’s 5-yard line.

“I’ve heard it before,” Bucs head coach Jon Gruden said of the boos. “We’re all going to hear it again. That’s just a part of football. Frustration brings upon boos. You have to be thick-skinned. I know Tim Brown is. I know we are. Hopefully, we can get our return game going soon.”

Brown is averaging 8 yards per punt return and has been serving as the team’s primary punt returner ever since WR Joey Galloway suffered a severe groin injury in Week 1 and Bill Schroeder was removed from PR duties due to his inability to field the ball cleanly on a consistent basis . As a team, the Bucs are averaging just 5.6 yards per punt return.

Despite those sub-par stats, Gruden was quick to defend Brown on Monday.

“You can second-guess yourself, you sure can,” Gruden said when asked if he second-guessed the team’s decision to not keep another player whose specialty is returning punts on the 53-man roster. “But we think Tim Brown is a pretty good backup returner, to be honest with you. He hasn’t had a lot of opportunities, if you want to sit down and analyze each return. He has not had a lot of real good looks. But you can always second-guess yourself. I don’t know who the backup punt returner is for Kansas City. I’d like to find out — I’d like to see Dante Hall miss this game. I’d like to find out who the backups are at a lot of their positions. So you understand what I’m saying. You can’t always keep backups at each position given the state of the National Football League and how many guys you can keep on your team.”

Bucs quarterback Brian Griese has completed 58 of 82 passes (70.7 percent) of his passes for 643 yards and tossed four touchdowns and just one interception since taking over for Chris Simms in the first quarter of Tampa Bay’s Week 5 contest in New Orleans.

More importantly, Griese has led the Buccaneers to wins in two of the team’s past three games, and according to head coach Jon Gruden, the 29-year-old quarterback deserves a lot of credit for the team’s recent success.

“I give him a lot of credit,” Gruden said of Griese. “Like I said yesterday, I do not know a lot of guys in their first three starts with a new team and a new system in this season come in and throw for 70 percent. This guy does a lot of things that nobody knows about, except the coaching staff and the football team that are great decisions and show a great amount of poise and understanding. He is a clutch football player. I think he can be outstanding in this football system. I think he gets a great amount of credit.”

Although Simms could be ready to play against the Kansas City Chiefs on Nov. 7, Griese, who engineered two 93-yard scoring drives against Chicago, will remain Tampa Bay’s starting signal caller for the foreseeable future.

“Well, if he keeps going like he’s going, we might have to get a lifetime contract going here,” Gruden said of Griese. “There will be no debate if he keeps playing the way he is playing. We love Chris Simms. We think he is going to be an outstanding pro. But if you continue to throw for 70, 72, 74 percent and make great decisions and make clutch throws in key situations, good for Tampa Bay Buccaneers football. That’s what I say. Good for Brian Griese.”

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