Bucs quarterback Jeff Garcia was feeling better on Wednesday than he had all of last week and feels that he's ready to get back out to practice. He feels there are no limitations to what he can do under center and fully expects to be the starter vs. the Houston Texans on Sunday. Garcia, however, was listed as limited on the Bucs injury report.
After sitting out the 27-23 victory vs. the Saints on Sunday with a bruised back, Garcia is getting better every day and is anxious to get back out on the field. He ultimately said that the decision to play would be up to Bucs head coach Jon Gruden, but Gruden stated on Monday that if Garcia says he's ready to go he will play on Sunday.
"I believe that I will play. I'm preparing to play and I'm sure they will leave that somewhat up to me and as far as I'm concerned I want to be out there playing," Garcia said. "I don't think that I'm risking anything. I feel that I'm getting back to a place where I'm healthy again. Of course, it's not without some ache or anything right now, but that's just part of soreness working its way out right now. So I feel good about where my health is and where I'm headed."
Quarterback Luke McCown was impressive in his first start of the season vs. New Orleans going 29-for-37 for 313 yards with two touchdowns and one interception. Even though McCown would love to get the opportunity to play vs. Houston in his home state – he was born in Jacksonville, Texas – he understands his role as a backup for this team and doesn't feel he should start if Garcia is healthy.
"No. Not at all," McCown said. "One game that I played in doesn't outweigh what Jeff has done all year. Are you kidding me? Jeff is the reason why we are where we are. He's the starter of this football team and when he's ready to play he'll be playing."
Gruden is still taking the wait-and-see approach with Garcia and is getting McCown prepared to play if the nine-year veteran can't go.
"If he can go he will go," Gruden said about Garcia. "But I don't want to say anything until I see how he feels tomorrow when he comes back. He did a lot more today than he did at all last week. He's really on the way back and we are excited about that."
Garcia is 7-4 as a starter for the Bucs this season and has completed 64 percent of his pass attempts for 2,135 yards with 11 touchdowns and three interceptions. McCown became the ninth quarterback to start a game during Gruden's tenure with the Bucs.
GRAHAM CLOSING IN ON 1,000-YARD PLATEAU The fact that Bucs running back Earnest Graham is even threatening to rush for 1,000 yards this season is not only a credit to his talent, but the improvement of a relatively young offensive line. Graham didn't make his first start until Week 6 vs. Tennessee and recorded his first 100-yard game of his career vs. Arizona in Week 9.
Graham has had three 100-yard performances this season with his best effort coming in a 17-10 victory vs. the Cardinals with a 34-carry, 124-yard, one touchdown performance. The fourth-year running back has scored a team-high seven touchdowns this season and has 737 yards (4.2 avg.) on 176 carries. He also has been a weapon out of the backfield, which is a key component in Gruden's offense, with 36 receptions for 228 yards (6.3 avg.) in 12 games.
"I'm really proud of him and thankful for him. Obviously, what he has done statistically speaks for itself," Gruden said. "Not a lot of backs in our history here have done what he has done; rushing and receiving and combined yardage in just seven or eight starts. He's been durable, he's protected the football, and I think what goes unnoticed sometimes is his ability to pick up blitzes and just being an every down back. He's been outstanding for us."
Graham has taken advantage of his opportunity with the loss of running backs Michael Pittman and Cadillac Williams this season. Williams suffered a season-ending injury when he tore the patellar tendon in his knee. Pittman has battled through torn ligaments in his ankle for most of the season.
This is the first time in Graham's career that he's received an opportunity to carry the workload out of the backfield. He's always been as a special teams' ace, recording 20 tackles last season, and was known as "Mr. August" for his performances in the preseason and lack thereof in the regular season.
That's why the Bucs believe that achieving the 1,000-yard plateau would have a special meaning this season. He's just one of many backups who have had to step up and take major roles in the success of the team this season. Bucs left tackle Donald Penn has had to fill in with the injury to left tackle Luke Petitgout and fullback B.J. Askew has stepped in after the season-ending neck injury to fan-favorite fullback Mike Alstott.
"It will be great. Earnest Graham came in during Week 4 [first start in Week 6] and he's about to have 1,000 yards so that would be a big accomplishment. I have to take my hat off to Earnest Graham, Luke [McCown] and even Matt Lehr when he came in," Penn said. "[He's] running the ball so hard and playing so well. We are just trying to follow in his footsteps. I think that's another thing that drives us. Everybody is looking at everybody else and saying ‘They are doing better so we have to do better'. Everybody is motivating everybody and all we are trying to do is getter. You look at the team and see that everybody is doing good and you don't want to be the only one not doing good. So everybody is trying to motivate each other and it's not even saying anything, it's just showing by their actions."
Askew believes that the running game will be important to close out the season and in the playoffs. The Bucs will host at least one playoff game and most likely will have to travel to either Green Bay or Dallas if they reach the second round of the playoffs. Tampa Bay does have an outside shot at capturing the No. 2 seed, which would result in a first-round bye and possibly two home playoff games.
"We've done a god job running the ball this year with all three running backs. Cadillac [Williams] started off doing a pretty good job for us and then [Michael] Pittman came in and he got hurt," Askew said. "Earnest just picked it up where everybody else left off and hasn't missed a step. Going into the playoffs you definitely want to be running the football. You have to be able to run the ball not just in the playoffs, but in December. The teams that can really run the ball are your playoff teams, the teams that could possibly be playing on Super Bowl Sunday. It's a huge momentum and hats off to our whole staff, the offensive line and the play-calling. I just tip my hat to everybody because it's been a collective effort."
Graham knows that reaching the 1,000-yard mark would be a big accomplishment not just personally, but for the team as well.
"It's a big goal. Any running back uses 1,000 yards as a measure of some kind of success in a season," Graham said. "To still have a chance to reach 1,000 yards is big. It would be big for me, big for the offensive line and big for this team."
ROSENFELS, NOT SCHAUB AT QB FOR HOUSTON Houston quarterback Matt Schaub has battled through a left shoulder injury for most of the season and that injury, a dislocated shoulder, will force him to the bench on Sunday. Even though Schaub has been under center for four of the Texans five victories this season, he has struggled in his first season as a starter in the NFL.
Schaub is completing 66 percent of his pass attempts for 2,241 yards, but has as many touchdowns (nine) as interceptions (nine) this season. He also has a quarterback rating of 87.2 for a player that Houston threw $48 million at during the offseason.
Texans backup quarterback Sage Rosenfels will get his second start of the season and has won the only game he started this season. He led the Texans to a 24-17 victory on the road vs. Oakland in Week 9, going 11-for-19 for 181 yards with one touchdown and one interception.
"I'm pretty sure he will step in and do a good job. We were looking at some numbers today where he step in for [Matt] Schaub and put up some good numbers," Bucs defensive tackle Jovan Haye said. "We aren't going to underestimate him and just treat him like he's a starter, which is what he is this week. Hopefully we can get after him because he's a good player."
Rosenfels has played in five games for the Texans this season throwing for 914 yards with eight touchdowns and seven interceptions. The Texans helped out Tampa Bay with announcing the decision to start Rosenfels instead of Schaub. The Bucs can now game plan for Rosenfels instead of having to prepare for both quarterbacks if they didn't know who was starting.
"It's a lot easier especially with those two [quarterbacks Matt Schaub and Sage Rosenfels] because they have different strengths and weaknesses," Bucs safety Tanard Jackson said. "It's makes it a lot easier when you can prepare for one quarterback like Rosenfels who is more of a quarterback who can get out of the pocket and make things happen with his feet as well as his arm. It made our job a lot easier when they announced that."
ADAMS, WILLIAMS HAVE SIMILARITIES This Sunday's match-up between the Bucs and Texans will display the talents of two defensive ends that were high first-round selections. Tampa Bay selected defensive end Gaines Adams with the fourth overall pick in this year's draft and Houston selected defensive end Mario Williams last season with the first overall pick.
Williams struggled early in the season in 2006 in living up to his draft status, but ended the season with 47 tackles and 4.5 sacks. The second-year player out of N.C. State has been much more successful so far this season with 40 tackles and 8.5 sacks in 12 games this season.
Williams will battle Penn in trying to get his hands on Garcia or McCown, but could also face right tackle Jeremy Trueblood a few times as well.
"Mario Williams lines up everywhere, so everyone is going to get a piece of him," Trueblood said. "Donald is a good player and there's no reason why he can't go over there and do his thing."
Adams also had some struggles early in his rookie campaign, but has flashed some of the talent that convinced the Bucs to take him in the first round. With increased playing time after the injury to defensive end Greg Spires, Adams has made some noise in the last four games.
Adams has 39 tackles, one forced fumble and ranks third on the defense with 4.5 sacks in 12 games this season. Gruden feels that Adams has made steady improvement this season and is excited about his future in the Bucs defense.
"We took Gaines Adams because we needed him and we think he's going to be a hell of a pro football player. He's not all the way there yet, but he's making strides every week," Gruden said. "He's a guy that works hard at it and you see that it's coming on. That's exciting for our fans and our team."
GRUDEN'S CALL SHOWS CONFIDENCE Most people agreed with the call, some people doubted whether it was the right move, but everyone was happy with the outcome of the fourth-and-1 play by Gruden in the 27-23 victory vs. New Orleans. With two minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, the Bucs were looking at a fourth down, trailing by three and facing a 45-yard field goal for the tie. Gruden, however, was thinking about going for the win instead of a possible overtime.
So Gruden called a running play to the right side, behind Trueblood and right guard Davin Joseph, at the 28-yard line. Graham barreled over the right side and gained two yards to keep the drive alive for the game-winning score.
"Yeah, that was encouraging and something I can respect," Trueblood said. "If he calls a fourth-and-1 on your side you hope he would do that. Luckily he did and it worked."
Gruden showed his confidence and trust in his offensive line and Graham in making that call. It was also a statement to his players that he was going for the win instead of the tie in a game that had major significance on if the Bucs would win the division title or not.
"He had confidence. We had been moving the ball most of the game and he knew that we wanted to leave it all out on the field," Graham said. "In the situation we were in you don't want to kick a field goal and they get the ball back or go into overtime and let the flip of a coin decided the game. We had our destiny right there in our hands and we wanted to take control of it and we did."
INJURY REPORT The Bucs had several players that were limited in practice on Wednesday including defensive end Kevin Carter (shoulder) and Spires (calf), wide receiver Ike Hilliard (ankle), Garcia (back) and Pittman (ankle). Wide receiver Joey Galloway took his normal practice day off as well.
Spires feels that he might be able to play vs. Houston this week, but if not this week, he believes he will return the following vs. Atlanta at home.
"Yeah, there's absolutely [a chance I will play]. I really haven't practiced with pads on, so I'm going to see how this week goes and we'll take it day by day," Spires said. "It's a good chance this week, but if not this week then definitely next week. I think there's a really good chance this week."
Askew was the only player that didn't participate in practice as he continues to battle through an ankle injury. He hasn't practiced in the past three weeks, but has been able to play on Sunday.
QUOTE OF THE DAY Trueblood on what he said to Joseph in the huddle before the fourth-and-1 play that led to the game-winning touchdown vs. New Orleans.
"I said, ‘Let's make our money,'" Trueblood said. "‘We were brought in here for a reason. Let's make our money.' We said that a few other occasions, like when we got the ball we said that. But when it was fourth-and-1, I said, ‘We really have to make our money and we were brought here for a reason – let's go prove it.' I think we proved it, but we need to continue to prove it as much as possible over the next few weeks."
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