Tampa Bay head coach Jon Gruden confirmed what was pretty clear in the second quarter of Sunday night’s game in Oakland — running back Charlie Garner is out for the season after suffering a torn patella tendon in his right knee.

Garner, 32, signed a six-year, $20 million deal with the Bucs during the offseason after spending three seasons with the Raiders. He finishes his first season with the Bucs with 30 carries for 111 yards (3.7 avg.) and nine catches for 62 yards.

In addition to Garner’s injury, tight end Rickey Dudley is also likely out for the season with a fractured right thumb.

“Charlie Garner ruptured his right patellar tendon and he’ll be out for the season,” said Gruden. “Rickey Dudley has a fracture in his right thumb; he’ll have surgery. Both of these guys will have surgery sometime today, probably. Rickey’s out for a long period of time also.”

Bucs RB Michael Pittman, who finished serving his three-game suspension and reported to One Buccaneer Place Monday, will replace Garner as the starting tailback.

“Pittman walked in this morning,” said Gruden. “Michael Pittman returns for the game; obviously, he’ll start at the tailback position and we’re anxious to get him going again. We had obviously looked forward to working him and Charlie in the same backfield together, but unfortunately that won’t be the case this year. But Pittman’s a guy who we think is a fine football player and we’ll have to lean on him at this time.”

Although the Bucs have RB Jamel White and fullback Mike Alstott on their active roster, the team could possibly sign a free agent running back or even pursue one via a trade with another team in an effort to improve their ground attack, which is ranked 30th in the NFL.

The Bucs, who have lost five straight regular season games and have dropped nine of their last 12 regular contests dating back to the 2003 season, have an offense that’s been depleted by injuries to Garner, Dudley, wide receivers Joey Galloway, Joe Jurevicius and Edell Shepherd, and WR Keenan McCardell’s holdout. Needless to say, Gruden, whose Bucs are off to their worst start (0-3) since the 1996 season, is frustrated, but he remains optimistic.

“We’re all dejected, we’re all down,” said Gruden. “I think the future’s so bright here I’ve got to wear shades. Obviously, we’ve had some tragic injuries and some things happen. We’re going to be a hell of a football team at some point. We’ve got to play better than we did last night in all phases, but we will put it together.

“There are a lot of games left. I think we’ve got a chance to be a heck of a football team if we can put it together. We’ve got to have some guys step up, clearly. Guys like Bill Schroeder and Charles Lee. We’ve got to get Jurevicius and Galloway back at some point. We’ve got to find a way to win one game. If we can get some momentum going, we’ve seen crazier things happen.”

CLAYTON TO RETURN PUNTS?:
With WR Joey Galloway sidelined several more weeks with a groin tear, Bucs head coach Jon Gruden has been using receivers Bill Schroeder and Tim Brown as punt returners. But with the Bucs averaging just 4.9 yards per punt return this season, Gruden suggested Monday that he has flirted with the idea of using using rookie WR Michael Clayton as a punt returner.

“We were going to have Michael Clayton prepared to return punts in the regular field,” said Gruden. “There are certain situations where the opponent is punting inside the 20, down-it-punt type situations. We let Tim Brown handle some of those because of his experience and the fact that there is probably not going to be a return. We are looking for the sure hand good decision catch from an experienced player in that situation.”

Kick returner Frank Murphy was inactive on Sunday night with a hamstring injury and will be listed as questionable for Sunday’s game against the Denver Broncos.

“That’s another injury last night that hurt us, on special teams and as a coverage man and as a return man,” said Gruden. “I thought (cornerback) Torrie Cox did some good things. Frank couldn’t go. We tried to warm him up before the game. His hamstring was still tight. We’ll list him as questionable for this game. We hope to have him back.”

Gruden said Monday that second-year tight end Will Heller would be activated for the first time this Sunday due to TE Rickey Dudley’s thumb injury.

“We have had too many changes already,” Gruden said. “I think that’s our problem. We are going to continue to look at the potential of anybody who can give us life. Will Heller will play this week for the first time. Michael Pittman will play for the first time. There could be some other guys that play. Jameel Cook played for the first time last night. When you are down the number of receivers that we are down, you lose (Charlie) Garner, Pittman has been out of the games, Dudley goes down early in the contest. We are probably playing too many guys at this point, but we are going to rally around the healthy bodies that we do have and find a way to win a game.”

GRUDEN HOPES McCARDELL RETURNS:
With Tampa Bay’s offense ranked 26th overall in the NFL, will the Bucs meet Pro Bowl wide receiver Keenan McCardell’s contract demands in an effort to generate more offense?

“We have the same conversation every week,” said Bucs head coach Jon Gruden. “Keenan has said some things that have hurt my feelings. I feel very bad about this. I really do. We want him in here. We would love to have him in here playing for us, but there is a salary cap. There is a reality that makes this very difficult. I’m just coaching this team. There are a lot of guys; I am sure, on our team and on other teams that probably deserve other types of contracts and things of that nature. We hope he comes in and plays. We hope he comes in and plays. I will let Bruce (Allen) speak on that matter any further. I just would love to have him on our team. We sure could use him.”

McCardell, who hauled in a team-high 84 passes and scored a career-high nine touchdowns last season, is holding out for a new contract that will pay him like the team’s number one receiver, or at least more than the $2.5 million he was scheduled to earn before the 2004 season started. While they could use his services, the Bucs don’t appear to be willing to compromise their position on the contract dispute with McCardell.

“I felt that we were a pretty good team, he and I,” said Gruden. “Our offense suited his stuff. This is a business decision and unfortunately, we are at an impasse right now. It is frustrating for him, frustrating for me, frustrating for us and hopefully it gets resolved at some point soon. The guy should be playing football. He is a good player.”

GRUDEN STICKING WITH JOHNSON AT QUARTERBACK:
Bucs head coach Jon Gruden said quarterback Brad Johnson will start Sunday against the Denver Broncos. Johnson completed 22 of 36 passes for 309 yards and tossed two touchdowns and one interception (returned 32 yards for a touchdown) against Oakland.

“You want to give Chris Simms some game action,” said Gruden. “He’s a young player. He needs to develop. He needs some snaps, but we felt staying with Brad was the right thing to do. I thought Brad made some great throws in the ball game.”

RUN DEFENSE NEEDS TO IMPROVE:
Tampa Bay’s run defense allowed Oakland to rush for 173 yards on 31 carries (5.6 avg.) on Sunday night. Raiders running back RB Tyrone Wheatley rushed 18 times for 102 yards (5.7 avg.) and broke off a 60-yard run on his first carry of the game.

In Week 1 against Washington, Tampa Bay’s defense allowed Redskins RB Clinton Portis to rush for 148 yards on 29 carries (5.1 avg.). Like Wheatley, Portis broke off a long (64-yard) run on his first carry of the game.

As a result of their mixed outings against the run, the Bucs’ run defense is currently ranked 25th in the league. Head coach Jon Gruden is hoping his defense can remedy its problems against the run like it did against the Seahawks, who managed just 56 yards on 23 carries (2.4 avg.).

“Oakland did use a lot of seven-man protection,” said Gruden. “If you watch it carefully, he kept the tight end in and kept the gap protected, with a seven-man protection. That’s tough sledding sometimes on the defensive line. We used a lot of the similar protections in the game last night as well, to try to handle blitzes, to try to get some double teams inside against very good pass rushers and that again was the case with the Raiders last night. It’s just unfortunate we didn’t handle their passing game better. They created some very big plays with three men out in the route.

“I think our defense is a very good defensive team. Last night, they ran up against a hot offensive squad that made some big plays in the passing game and were able to get their running game going. When you have a good mixture and you have a complement of backs, a stable of backs, that are fresh, and a big offensive line, a power quarterback, there are just some nights where you are going to struggle in this business and that was the case last night.”

QUOTE OF THE DAY:
Bucs head coach Jon Gruden on how he’s feeling after his team’s 30-20 loss to the Raiders and a 0-3 start to the season:

“I am a human being. I am not feeling great, but I am a very optimistic person. I know the firepower that this organization has and I understand the situation that we are in right now. I am proud of our team for their effort. I am proud of our guys for busting their butts. They were down and they hung in there. If our team makes that field goal and we get that onside kick, God knows what can happen. I am proud of our team for competing. More than anything, I am proud of that fact. I am going to be resilient. This is as low as I have been personally. The two or three friends that I have left in Tampa, I am sure will call me sometime today and pump me up. We are going to rebuild this thing. We are going to reenergize this thing and we are going to once again be great. That’s the only way we are going to do things here.”

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