Even though Bucs head coach Jon Gruden made it clear on Wednesday that he isn't going to rest any of his players, the regular season finale vs. the Carolina Panthers will be treated almost like a first-round bye for several starters. Quarterback Jeff Garcia, wide receiver Joey Galloway and running back Earnest Graham will likely be spectators on Sunday for most if not all of the contest.
After watching wide receiver Maurice Stovall go down for the season with a broken arm and defensive end Greg White hobble off the field with an apparent leg injury vs. San Francisco, Gruden quickly got his backups into the game in the loss vs. the 49ers as quick as he could. That will likely be the same game plan heading into Sunday's game vs. Carolina with quarterback Luke McCown, running back Michael Pittman and wide receiver Michael Clayton likely to see a lot of playing time.
The Bucs are trying to remain focused on Sunday's game, but the theme around One Buc Place is centered around the first-round playoff contest vs. the New York Giants. However, all the players wanted to talk about was playing Carolina on Sunday.
"We have the mindset that we have one more game in the regular season we have to get ready for," McCown said. "It's a good team; the Carolina Panthers coming in and we have to get ready for them and go win a game."
McCown was brought in late in the second quarter vs. San Francisco and played the rest of the game, nearly bringing the Bucs back to capture a win. He finished the game 18-for-32 for 185 yards with one touchdown and one interception. Despite the fact that Sunday's contest doesn't have any significance on the Bucs playoff status there is still some motivation for players like McCown.
In his last three appearances – starting two games vs. New Orleans and Houston and his relief of Garcia on Sunday – McCown has lacked the consistency that Gruden looks for out of his quarterbacks. With Garcia signed only through next year, McCown is in some way auditioning for a possible starting role in the future. So there is plenty to play for in McCown's eyes.
"You always want to play and win the game. You always want to play well so the preparation doesn't change for me," McCown said. "It's been the same every week to prepare to play and play as hard as you can. Look at as much tape as you can and go out and put your best foot forward."
On the other hand, there is middle linebacker Jeremiah Trotter who could be suiting up for the last time in an NFL regular season game. Trotter, who was brought in after linebacker Antoine Cash was lost for the year in the preseason, has only been active for two of 15 games this season for the Bucs. He has always been the starter during his career and the one looking for rest, but is now the player giving linebacker Barrett Ruud some rest before the postseason.
"It's been tough. I was telling somebody the other day that this was the first time I haven't dressed since my rookie season," Trotter said. "It's been tough, but I pray a lot and we have a great group of guys and coaching staff and it feels good when guys always ask me how I'm doing. So I absolutely love coming to work and when you have an environment like this it makes it easier."
Trotter has accepted his role on the team this season from mentoring the younger players to being a coach on the sideline on game day. He is just happy to be able to contribute any way he can this season.
"I just tried to bring the leadership, you know, the veteran leadership and every week I'm trying to get the Scout team Player of the Week," Trotter said. "It hasn't happened yet so we have one week left so you all cross your fingers."
The playing time that Trotter received last week and will likely see this week means a little bit more to him this season compared to early in his career.
"Everything. Anytime I can get on the field for me it's just about my reputation being on the line," Trotter said. "I've set a standard for myself I believe and anytime I get an opportunity to go out there and make some plays I want to try to do it."
Trotter was flanked by two rookie linebackers in Quincy Black and Adam Hayward in San Francisco as the youngsters were seeing their first regular-season game action on defense. Both have participated on special teams' this season, but haven't seen serious playing time. Black and Hayward were able to face first-team starters vs. San Francisco and should see more time vs. the Panthers.
Hayward realized that he has a lot to learn about playing in the NFL after playing on Sunday. He recorded two tackles in the 21-19 loss vs. the 49ers.
"I wasn't quite there as far as knowing exactly what to do and how to adjust," Hayward said. "When you watch Derrick Brooks play, he can do so many little things to adjust and put himself in a better position. I need to learn how to do that. I know it's going to take time. Now that I think about it, I could have done this or that to make the play a lot easier for myself."
Clayton is a player who is using this last game vs. Carolina as a last preparation for the playoffs after missing a couple of weeks during the regular season with an ankle injury. He has stepped up in the last couple of games and taken advantage of his opportunities in the offense. Clayton believes the Bucs are ready to go out and get a win in the last game of the season no matter who plays.
"We're prepared for anybody to play – any quarterback, any wide receiver," Clayton said. "We've done a great job going into the game with that mentality of everybody being prepared to play and practicing well all week. You're definitely prepared for it and you're definitely been able to handle it."
Clayton, who has 17 receptions for 241 yards (14.2 avg.) this season, has battled a reputation of dropping the ball in the past two seasons. With two key drops – one apiece in losses vs. Pittsburgh and the New York Giants in 2006 – Bucs quarterbacks began to not look his way in passing situations.
He has bounced back this season and McCown and Garcia have regained confidence in the former first-round selection.
"Definitely," Clayton said of Garcia and McCown's confidence. "It's definitely grown. That's what you expect as a player. Just continuous work hard as a player and when you get the opportunity, you take advantage of them and you get more looks. That's how it's been since I've been here. I've had some great opportunities to catch some balls, but have let a couple slip through my hands. But for the most part, just being prepared and taking advantage of the opportunities and Coach Gruden will get you the ball more."
Several of the Bucs starters are preparing this week as though they are going to play, but the best decision for Tampa Bay is to rest their banged up talent. The last thing this team needs heading into the playoffs is another starter to go down with an injury.
"I'm not sure," Graham said of his playing time on Sunday. "I always want to play, but [Coach Gruden] always makes those calls. Coach is going to make the calls and I'm going to do whatever he tells me he's going to do."
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