The Bucs defied many predictions that had them finishing last the NFC South this season after clinching the division title and having the opportunity to host at least one playoff game. The team success, however, didn't translate into individual accolades as Tampa Bay didn't have one player make it on the NFC Pro Bowl roster this season. The snub of several players was the topic of conversation on Wednesday, but was more of a motivation than upsetting to several Bucs players.
Bucs linebacker Derrick Brooks wasn't voted to the Pro Bowl after reaching the NFL's All-Star game for 10 consecutive seasons and Tampa Bay isn't sending a representative to Hawaii for the first time since 1995. Quarterback Jeff Garcia, wide receiver Joey Galloway, linebacker Barrett Ruud, strong safety Jermaine Phillips, cornerback Ronde Barber and running back Earnest Graham were all considerations for the Pro Bowl, but were left off the rosters.
Tampa Bay has always preached a team-first concept this entire season and doesn't need a Pro Bowl invite to know what kind of talent they have in their locker room.
"We know we have great players within this locker room. We have players that are very deserving of that sort of recognition, but we are about the team and I think that's where this team is so solid and great," Garcia said. "It's not about the individual recognition; it's about the team accomplishments. We have one focus on our mind and that's getting to Arizona some how some way as a team. It's unfortunate that some of the guys weren't recognized for their great play this year, but that's just somewhat how it's been for this team throughout the season. Somewhat unrecognized in what we have been able to achieve, but that's okay with us. It's the fuel that ignites the fire. We feel like we have a lot more to prove and we are more concerned about what's going to take place this Sunday in San Francisco than what's taking place in February in Hawaii."
Phillips is fourth on the Bucs defense in tackles with 114 and leads the team with four interceptions. His improvement this season is one of the reasons why the Bucs are ranked 3rd in total defense and second in pass defense in the NFL. Phillips, however, was non-chalaunt about his feelings of not making the Pro Bowl.
"It is what it is. I'm not going to say that anybody is going that doesn't deserve it. They all had great seasons this year," Phillips said. "It's just a matter of how the votes fall. If we would have had more televised games maybe things would have been a little different. It is what it is. Our eyes are on a bigger prize."
Brooks, who is second on the Bucs defense with 153 tackles, looked at the snub as a positive and a compliment that Tampa Bay is a team instead of a bunch of individuals. There actually wasn't one player from the entire NFC South division, which consists of the Bucs, New Orleans, Atlanta and Carolina, named to the Pro Bowl.
"On the first hand, you congratulate the players that do make it, but to not have anyone on our team at all or even in our division is a little bit disheartening, but it shouldn't take away from the guys that did make it," Brooks said. "So you wish them well, but it's no better message as far as this team goes that it's really a true team and there are no individuals. So hopefully we can carry that theme right into the playoffs for bigger and better awards as a team."
Garcia was the one player that many Bucs fans and players thought would make the Pro Bowl after completing 64.2 percent of his pass attempts (197-for-307) for 2,244 yards with 12 touchdowns and four interceptions. The nine-year veteran was left off the roster in favor of Green Bay's Brett Favre, Dallas' Tony Romo and Seattle's Matt Hasselbeck.
Bucs backup quarterback Luke McCown has had a front-row seat this season to watch the talent that Garcia has at the quarterback position. He was surprised that Garcia didn't make the Pro Bowl and feels that the lack of exposure by the national media played a part in that.
"I do feel like he should be going there," McCown said. "I feel that way especially after knowing where we came from and him being the reason we're at where we are right now or a lot of the reason anyways. I do feel like he got slighted a little bit. I think it's due to a lack of the national exposure we've had, or haven't had, because of how we were last year."
Bucs head coach Jon Gruden wasn't in the mood to talk about none of his players making the Pro Bowl. Gruden, however, is more concerned with his team making a different Bowl appearance.
"The Pro Bowl is what it is and I'm not going to disregard that it is a great honor, but that's not the only way we evaluate our players," Gruden said. "We don't pay our players salaries based on whether or not they go to the Pro Bowl. I'm not going to talk about the Pro Bowl anymore. We are interested in the Super Bowl. I know we have some players that are worthy of being in that game, that All-Star classic and we have some players that will certainly be there at some point soon. I believe that."
Garcia, Galloway and fullback B.J. Askew were named as alternates on the NFC team, which means if one player from their position can't make it, one of those players will get to make the trip.
SITTING OUT HELPS ASKEW IN HEALING PROCESS
Bucs fullback B.J. Askew hasn't practiced in more than a month, but was able to suit up on Sunday. However, last week Askew had to sit out the 37-3 victory vs. Atlanta because of the ankle injury he's battled through for the past five games. Fullback Byron Storer filled in for Askew and did a good job in his place.
Askew, who was brought in as a free-agent from the New York Jets, believes it was a good decision to sit out last week even though he wanted to be out on the field. It's still unknown whether Askew will play this week vs. San Francisco, but the rest certainly helped in the healing process.
"Definitely," Askew said of the benefit of sitting out last Sunday. "I'm walking normal right now and I'm not in a cast. If I would have played I would have a cast on right now and would be limping. I'm walking around right now without a limp. I did the walk-thru and felt decent. I definitely benefited."
Askew was impressed with the performance of Storer and had multiple compliments for his replacement.
"I thought he did really good," Askew said. "He went all out. I probably shouldn't say this, but I saw him cut [Falcons defensive end] John Abraham so bad, and he left the game. Abraham never came back in. You saw that from Byron in practice. He knows one speed, and that's full speed. You have to love a guy like that."
The fifth-year fullback has been a major reason for the success of the running game this season and has led the way for Graham, who is approaching the 1,000-yard milestone. Askew has also become a weapon catching the ball out of the backfield with 18 receptions for 175 yards (9.7 avg.) this season.
Askew won't be 100 percent until he is able to rest the injury after the season, but he's just going to battle through the pain no matter what.
"There's still some lingering in there," Askew said. "It's not 100 percent. I'd say it's about 75 or 80 percent. I don't know that I'll ever get to 100 percent, but taking that week off definitely got me over the 60 percent range."
Gruden remains hopeful with Askew's availability on Sunday vs. San Francisco and was happy to see his fullback at practice on Wednesday.
"Well I'm optimistic and again I can only say that he was out here today," Gruden said. "That was a good sign. He's closing in on being ready to play."
RUNNING GAME READY FOR PLAYOFFS
Early this season when running back Cadillac Williams went down with a season-ending knee injury and running back Michael Pittman was lost with an ankle injury, the Bucs wondered where the yards in the running game would come from. Graham was the only healthy running back, but had little success with the ball in his hand during the regular season in his career and basically had to carry the running attack.
Graham was expected to keep the running game afloat until the Bucs could get some help through a trade or until Pittman got healthy. The fifth-year running back, however, has become an every-down back and is on his way to a 1,000-yard season, which was thought to be impossible. He has 877 yards rushing (4.1 avg.) with 10 touchdowns along with 47 receptions for 313 yards (6.7 avg.).
The Bucs acquired running back Michael Bennett from Kansas City just before the trade deadline and nursed Pittman back to where he could be effective in the offense. Tampa Bay now has a dominant running attack, which ranks 10th in the NFL, and has depth that is a necessity for a deep playoff run.
"He has carried us up to this point," Askew said of Graham. "We've had other guys step up, too. Man, we have some depth on this team."
Tampa Bay's first priority on offense is to establish the running game to create opportunities for Garcia in the passing game. The offensive line, which is one of the youngest in the NFL, enjoys dominating opposing defenses with a powerful running attack.
"We think about that every week. We think about the running game because if we are successful in the running game then it makes everything else a little easier," Bucs left tackle Donald Penn said. "So we always want to go into the game trying to get a dominant running game. Last week we were able to do that and this week we are hoping to do that same, but my hat goes off to San Francisco because they have a tough front seven. Each team we play week-in and week-out is tougher and tougher so we are going in with the mindset to run the ball, but if that doesn't work we have other ways that we have to do to try to win. We are going to do whatever it takes to win the game."
A consistent running attack will be crucial if the Bucs have to travel to Green Bay or Dallas in the second round of the playoffs. The Packers and the Cowboys have impressive offensive units and Tampa Bay will need to control the clock and the tempo of the game to have a shot at pulling off a victory. There is nothing better than a consistent running game that can eat time off the clock and keep an opposing offense off the field.
"It's a big part of what we do. We would like to throw it a little bit more, but I think we called 45 running plays last week and lost yardage on two of them," Gruden said. "That's a credit to the offensive line, tight ends and our fullback. We want to continue to emphasis our run-game fundamentals. It's our identity and helps create some play-action passes, some nakeds and bootlegs and things of that nature. So we are going to continue to do what we can to be good at it. It takes a lot of work."
STEVENS RETURNS TO TEAM AFTER ONE-GAME SUSPENSION
Bucs tight end Jerramy Stevens made his return to the team after serving a one-game suspension for violating the NFL's Substance Abuse Policy. Stevens was found guilty for driving under the influence and traffic violations in October after being arrested in March for DUI and marijuana possession.
Stevens sat out last Sunday's victory vs. the Atlanta Falcons and wasn't able to celebrate with his teammates after clinching the NFC South division title. Stevens is upset that he had to miss out on the celebration, but is happy to be back with the team.
"I felt really happy and fortunate that I only had to miss one game," Stevens said. "Unfortunately, it was one where we clinched against Atlanta. It sucked to miss out on that, but I'm glad I'm back with the team and can get ready for this playoff run."
Stevens not only missed out on clinching the division title, but he also wasn't a part of history as well. The 6-foot-7 tight end has been on the kickoff return team this season and could have been on the field for kick return specialist Micheal Spurlock's 90-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. However, Stevens didn't even get to see the return on television either.
"I was actually flying back during the game, so I didn't get a chance to see it," Stevens said. "I came in yesterday and watched it, though. I've been on the kickoff return team all year, so we talk about that every time we go out there, ‘Let's go out and make history. Mike Spurlock is a cool cat. I was happy for that dude. I wish I were out there celebrating with him when it happened. I was glad to see it happen."
Stevens has 10 receptions for 86 yards (8.6 avg.) this season along with one touchdown. His lone touchdown came in the 27-23 victory vs. the New Orleans Saints, a 4-yard reception that won the game for the Bucs.
BUCS MAKE ROSTER MOVES
The Bucs made two roster moves on Wednesday when they released fullback Zack Crockett from the active roster and tight end Zac Herold from the practice squad. This was the second time this season that Crockett was released by the Bucs. They signed him to the active roster on Oct. 10 and released him on Oct. 24.
The Bucs seem to be back on the mend after several weeks of multiple players having to sit out or being limited in practice. On Wednesday, defensive end Patrick Chukwurah (hamstring) and Ryan Nece (groin) did not participate in practice. Askew (ankle) and wide receiver Joey Galloway (team decision) were limited in practice and Pittman (ankle) and defensive end Greg Spires (calf) participated fully.
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