Bucs quarterback Jeff Garcia took most of the reps in Wednesday's practice for the first time in two weeks and has declared himself healthy and ready to start Sunday vs. the Atlanta Falcons. Quarterback Luke McCown filled in for Garcia in the last two weeks and went 1-1 with a victory vs. New Orleans and suffered a 28-14 loss vs. the Houston Texans last Sunday.
Garcia is 7-4 as a Bucs starter this season and has completed more than 64 percent of his pass attempts for 2,135 yards with 11 touchdowns and three interceptions. In two games as a starter this season, McCown has completed 72 percent of his passes going 54-for-75 for 579 yards with two touchdowns and one interception. He went 1-for-4 for nine yards when he was Garcia's backup vs. Seattle in Week 1.
The three-time Pro Bowl quarterback wanted to make it clear that he was the starter this week.
"No sitting up here beating around the bush, I'm definitely playing this week," Garcia said. "I feel great, ready to go, feel healthy again. So it will be a good start today to be back on the field and just work all week and get ready for Sunday."
Bucs head coach Jon Gruden expressed on Monday that he was excited to get his starter back on the field. Wide receiver Joey Galloway, who has become a favorite target for Garcia, is also happy to see his field general back under center.
"We're looking forward to having him back," Galloway said. "He's been the leader and he's been the guy. He's gotten us to where we are now. We're expecting to have him back, get back on track, win these last few games and get ready for the playoffs."
Garcia is picking the right time to make his comeback from a bruised back as the Bucs have another opportunity to clinch the NFC South division with a victory on Sunday. Even though the Bucs got a split in two games without Garcia in the lineup, it's not a secret as to who makes the offense run.
McCown struggled with getting rid of the ball and doesn't have the pocket savvy that the experienced Garcia brings to the offense. The nine-year quarterback has a better grasp of the offense and does a good job of getting the Bucs out of bad plays. Garcia's leadership on and off the field has been a key to the success of Tampa Bay this season.
"Very important [to get Garcia back]. The things that Jeff has done over the past few months have been exceptional to our offense. He's brought out the best in myself, Joey Galloway and Earnest Graham," Bucs wide receiver Michael Clayton said.
"You've seen some guys jump on to the scene and it's because of guys like Jeff Garcia getting us into the right checks at the line of scrimmage. To have your leader back is always a plus, but you never know what is going to happen. I think it was great that Luke got in there and made some plays down the stretch."
Gruden liked what he saw out of Garcia in practice and wants to see more as the week moves on.
"He's missed basically three football games. We need to get Jeff back in the groove. He's a big reason why we're alive," Gruden said. "He's a big reason why we have a lot of optimism for the future around here. He's really laid the foundation in terms of a work ethic and a competitiveness on offense that I think our offensive team has rallied around. I know our team is anxious to have him back."
BUCS ADD CROCKETT FOR DEPTH AT FULLBACK
The Bucs made several roster moves on Wednesday as they signed running back Zack Crockett and promoted running back Kenneth Darby from the practice squad to the active roster. With the moves at running back, Tampa Bay released running back Lionel Gates from the active roster. The Bucs also signed tight end Zac Herold to the practice squad.
Crockett was added to the roster because fullback B.J. Askew has been bothered with an ankle injury for the past month. Darby's addition could be a signal that Gruden still isn't comfortable with the progress of running back Michael Bennett and needs a player to spell running back Earnest Graham for a couple of plays on Sunday.
"They told me they needed me to do what I could to help because they have some injured guys and everything," Crockett said. "They want me to come in and help this team continue to be successful, and that's what I plan on doing."
PLAYERS RESPOND TO STEVENS' SUSPENSION
Bucs tight end Jerramy Stevens was suspended on Tuesday for this Sunday's contest vs. the Atlanta Falcons after violating the NFL's Substance Abuse Policy. He was found guilty of driving under the influence and traffic violations in October after being arrested in March for DUI and marijuana possession.
Stevens was signed as a free-agent even though the Bucs knew about his run-ins with the law and has recorded 10 receptions for 86 yards (8.6 avg.) so far this season. He had a 4-yard touchdown reception in the 27-23 win vs. the New Orleans Saints two weeks ago.
With the loss of Stevens for Sunday's game, tight end Keith Heinrich could see some playing time along with tight ends Alex Smith and Anthony Becht. Smith has 25 receptions for 288 yards (11.5 avg.) and three touchdowns and Becht has two receptions for eight yards (4.0 avg.) and one touchdown.
Becht doesn't know if his role in the offense will change with the loss of Stevens on Sunday.
"I don't know. We had a decent rotation going. Obviously it's based on play, formation and opponent. I don't really know how will translate as far as what we have going on this week," Becht said. "The game plan has been put together and Jerramy has made some fantastic plays for us in the past couple of weeks so I'm just glad it's just one game. So when he gets back we will back on track next week."
Garcia believes that the Bucs will step up and move on vs. Atlanta the way they have done with the many player issues they have faced this year. Whether it was an injury or run-ins with the law, Tampa Bay has done a good job of focusing on football and somehow finding a way to win.
"We've been affected many different times throughout this season and as much as it's a tough loss not having Jerramy there this Sunday somebody else has to step in and step up," Garcia said. "We've been fortunate enough to have to good solid tight ends in Alex Smith and Anthony Becht who will return and are with us."
BUCS GET NO MENTION AS NFC CONTENDER
As the playoff picture begins to take more of a shape as the season winds down, the Bucs haven't been mentioned as much of a contender in the NFC this season. All the talk is about the Dallas Cowboys, Green Bay Packers and Seattle Seahawks. Tampa Bay, however, isn't worried about getting recognition in Week 15.
Bucs linebacker Derrick Brooks just wants to keep the team focused on winning games for the next three weeks and not worry about what anyone is saying.
"If we take care of our business then we will get the attention that we deserve when the time is right. Right now what we have to do is win our games and when the time is right for us to get that kind of attention we will get it," Brooks said. "Right now we haven't made the playoffs so there is nothing to talk about with the Bucs. Once we get in hopefully after Sunday then the conversation will spark that, but to me it doesn't matter. That attention will come when we get into a position for that attention to come our way."
The only thing that Bucs are worried about is getting a victory vs. the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday and wrapping up the NFC South. With winning the division, Tampa Bay will clinch a playoff berth and host at least one playoff game at Raymond James Stadium.
It's been shown in the past – the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers – that all a team needs is a chance in the playoffs. The Bucs have a 7-2 record vs. NFC opponents this season including a 4-0 divisional record with the only losses coming vs. Seattle and Detroit.
"We just want get in the playoffs. Just get us in," Bucs defensive tackle Chris Hovan said. "Whoever we have to play if we have to go to Green Bay or go to Dallas or if we have to go to Alaska some how we will play. That's just the way it is. Our main focus is to just get us in and let us do the rest."
NECE FOUNDATION TO RECOGNIZE GOOD SAMARITAN WINNERS
On Thursday, the Ryan Nece Foundation will recognize four more student winners of the Good Samaritan Awards program. The program was set up to encourage leadership and community awareness by awarding high school students in Hillsborough and Pinellas County based on academic performance and community service.
Last month, Nece handed out this award to the first four winners in this program. The winners from last month were: Ashley Jacobs from East Bay High School, Thomas Mallozzi from Bloomingdale High School, Jacob Sperber of Dunedin High School and Jasmine Stafford of Dunedin High School.
During the 2007 school year, school representatives will nominate one male and one female student on a monthly basis. The four students that are chosen will be invited to a ceremony at One Buc Place where they will receive a personalized award from Nece.
Bucs fullback B.J. Askew (ankle) did not participate in practice on Wednesday, but defensive end Greg Spires (calf) participated fully. Wide receivers Joey Galloway (team decision) and Ike Hilliard (back), running back Michael Pittman (ankle) and linebacker Ryan Nece (groin) were limited in practice.
"He [Hilliard] was limited today, but he did practice so we are optimistic that he will be ready to go," Gruden said.
QUOTE OF THE DAY
Askew on if the needle hurts when he shoots up his ankle on game day to get through the contest.
"Yeah, it's pretty tough. I've thought about going without it. They encourage me not to have the shot, and I kind of tell them, ‘Give me the shot.' They really don't want to do it, but I've been pushing them. At some point, I might have to sit out a week. Hopefully, I can make it through and this week I'm going to try to go without the shot or potentially sit out."
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