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Injuries have hindered Tampa Bay defensive tackle Anthony McFarland throughout his six-year career. Injuries are obviously part of the game, but McFarland’s have kept him out of the action more often than he and the team would like.

Over the past four seasons, McFarland has missed 19 games (16 regular season, three post-season, including Super Bowl XXXVII) due to injuries, including a MCL strain, a fractured forearm, a fractured foot and his most recent injury — a partially torn triceps muscle, which caused him to miss the last eight games of the 2004 season and forced him to undergo season-ending surgery last November.

The former first-round draft pick has recorded 18 sacks in six seasons and is missing an average of three regular season games per season since entering the league out of Louisiana State University in 1999.

While he wouldn’t say where he was in terms of recovering from the triceps injury, which was originally scheduled to take approximately six weeks to recover from, McFarland, who some have labeled as an injury-prone player, said he’s had some bad luck when it comes to injuries.

“Sometimes you get unfortunate and sometimes you don’t, that’s just part of it,” said McFarland. “Sometimes you travel straight roads and sometimes it has curves in it, but it doesn’t matter as long as the road gets you to where you want to go. That’s the way I approach the game. My road has had a couple of curves in it, but it will eventually get going.”

Tampa Bay is hoping McFarland can get going, too. He did, after all, land a five-year, $34 million contract extension at the beginning of the 2003 regular season, and injuries have made it tough for him to give the Bucs a big return on their investment.

In fact, over the past three seasons, McFarland, 27, has notched just seven sacks in 34 regular season contests.

Last season, of course, was McFarland’s first as Tampa Bay’s starting under tackle, a position that was left vacant when Warren Sapp left the Bucs for the Oakland Raiders via free agency. That’s the position McFarland plans on playing again in 2005.

“I’m not changing positions,” said McFarland. “I’m an under tackle.”

Before going on injured reserve last season, McFarland recorded 28 tackles and three sacks. If he can remain healthy enough to play, “Booger” feels he can live up to the expectations the team had for him when they inked him to a long-term, lucrative contract.

“It’s part of the game, and part of life,” McFarland said of injuries. “We play a physical game. I’m surprised there aren’t more injuries.

“If I can stay on the field I’ll be okay.”

McFarland wasn’t the only Bucs defensive tackle that landed on injured reserve last season. In fact, two others — Ellis Wyms and Damian Gregory — were both sidelined for the season due to their respective injuries.

Although the loss of starting nose tackle Chartric Darby, who signed with Seattle last month, was a significant one, McFarland feels good about joining Wyms and Gregory on the road to recovery.

“We lost Chartric Darby, and since I’ve been here, he’s been the most consistent defensive lineman we’ve had,” said McFarland. “I don’t think people had a chance to see what he does at nose tackle, but I realize because I played there. We’ll miss him, so we have to get somebody to step up. If we do that, and everybody continues to improve, then we’ll have pretty good depth.

“It’s a very versatile group. You’ve got several guys who can play more than one position. I played a little nose (tackle) a couple of years ago, and Simeon has mostly played right end, but everybody else has been kind of moved around a bit. That gives us some versatility so when things do arise such as injuries and things of that nature. You always want to be able to play different styles of defense, too. We can move around and play with a 34 front with some guys who can play end and tackle, so that just gives us a lot of versatility.”

One of Tampa Bay’s main points of emphasis this offseason will be working on shutting down the run on a consistent basis. Last season, the Bucs defense ranked 19th in that category and allowed opposing offenses to produce an average of 123.3 rushing yards per contest.

“The running game is physical and we just have to create havoc,” said McFarland. “We play a one-gap system, and if the running game gets going, then the defensive line must not being doing the job, and when you look at it on the flip side and we’re stopping the run, people say the linebackers must be doing one hell of a job. I kind of laugh at that thing and go the other way, but as a defense we need to be better because we’re not that big. We’ve got to be better at the point of attack and make the ball go laterally.

“We can’t let backs run downhill on us because the quickest way to the end zone from one way to the other is north and south. We’ve got to make them go east and west. If you see a lot of guys running east and west this year, you’ll know that we definitely picked it up.”

One person who could help the Bucs defense in that regard is former Minnesota Vikings first-round pick Chris Hovan, who signed with Tampa Bay last week as a free agent and will play strictly at nose tackle. Should Hovan beat out Wyms and Gregory for the starting nose tackle job, he’ll play alongside McFarland on Sundays.

“He can help a lot,” McFarland said of Hovan. “He’s got a great motor. We’ve never been the biggest defense, but we’ve always prided ourselves on being quick and fast. He fits that mold, and he’s played a lot of football. You can never substitute for experience, a guy who has seen a lot, made a lot of plays and knows what it’s like on Sundays.”

With offseason team activities just under way, McFarland said he plans on spending the offseason working to become a better player so that when he does get on the field healthy, he can make the most of it.

“I’m not teaching, I’m still learning,” said McFarland. “You never know it all. In these past two days we’re putting in different things so you’re out there learning them. You can look at a projector and or overhead and see things, but you never quite understand them until you get out on the grass. The grass makes stuff come alive.”

If you liked this story, be sure to get the inside scoop and more detailed information on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ offseason plans regarding roster changes, free agency and the NFL Draft with a Pewter Insider premium subscription.

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