With the NFC South title safely in the pocket of the Bucs, the popular question on Monday was how head coach Jon Gruden can get some rest for his starters on both sides of the ball. Even though the rest would surely help some of the walking wounded at One Buc Place, Tampa Bay still has something to play for this season and wants to keep building momentum toward the playoffs.
The Bucs are still fighting for the No. 3 seed in the NFC and are tied with the Seattle Seahawks at 9-5. The Seahawks hold the tiebreaker over Tampa Bay winning the head-to-head meeting in Week 1. So the Bucs will need to continue winning and need Seattle to lose one of their remaining two games.
"We want to win and to do that you have to play your best players. So we are going to keep the schedule as is," Gruden said. "There might be some opportunities to look some different players although we've looked at just about every guy on our roster. We are going to use everybody on our football team, but we're not going to change much here in the next few weeks."
Bucs quarterback Jeff Garcia made his return from a bruised back and led Tampa Bay to a convincing 37-3 victory vs. Atlanta on Sunday. However, Garcia showed some rustiness, finishing 15-of-25 for 109 yards with one touchdown and one interception. Backup quarterback Luke McCown could see some action in the next two games, but Garcia needs to get his rhythm back in the offense before the playoffs begin in January.
Running back Earnest Graham, however, is one player that could use some rest. With the return of running back Michael Pittman on Sunday, Graham got some rest vs. Atlanta and should see some more rest in the next two games. Graham finished with 79 yards on 22 carries with one touchdown and has 877 yards rushing this season along with 10 touchdowns.
Pittman finished the game with 50 yards on 13 carries and running back Michael Bennett showed some of his speed in the fourth quarter with nine carries for 63 yards. The depth at running back has been an issue for the Bucs for most of the season with the loss of Cadillac Williams for the season with a knee injury, but could be getting healthy at the right time.
"Pittman helps us. He's a guy that creatively became a fullback yesterday. He's a guy that can carry the ball and catch it. He's a guy we have used in the past as a joker," Gruden said. "A guy that can line up in other formations other than the backfield, catch the ball. He's not 100 percent yet, but he's closing in on getting back to normal health so that's a plus. We need him back bad."
The Bucs have two winnable games to end the season with a road trip to the West Coast vs. San Francisco and the regular season finale at home vs. Carolina. Tampa Bay will host at least one home playoff game, but it they get the No. 3 seed, there's a possibility that the NFC Championship could end up at Raymond James Stadium.
The momentum that the Bucs can carry into the playoffs with three consecutive wins can't be stressed enough. For example, the Indianapolis Colts rested most of its starters after starting the 2005 season with 13 consecutive victories. The Colts lost the last three games of that season and lost in the first playoff game they played vs. the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Gruden wants to get some players some rest, but with the 53-man limitation of the NFL on rosters, he just doesn't have the players on the bench to replace most of his starters.
"I could use a game off, but the problem is unlike in college football or even the preseason games, you don't have the nucleus on your roster to do that to be honest with you," Gruden said. "You are only allowed to have 47 guys active and to rest a guy you better have enough bodies that can go in and perform. That is the challenge in the NFL in Week 15 and 16. We do have an opportunity I think here in the next couple of games to consider and look at some other combinations; give some guys some plays off, but we are still playing for something and we want to continue to get better. Some of these young guys need to play to get ready for the playoffs."
GRUDEN ADMIRES SPURLOCK RETURN After watching history on Sunday, Gruden decided to watch the 90-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by kick return specialist Micheal Spurlock a couple more times on Monday. It was the first kickoff return for a touchdown in franchise history and just another first for Gruden during his tenure with the Bucs.
"We watched a few times this morning. That was a great play and great accomplishment to get off of Santa's wish list," Gruden said. "For all the fans that were in the bathroom at that time – I know a lot of fans go to the bathroom when our kickoff return team comes out and they're not expecting that – stay in your seats next time. We are really proud of Micheal Spurlock; the play was well blocked and was an impact play to say the least."
Gruden brought the first Super Bowl championship to the Bucs franchise in his first season as head coach, got the first win for Tampa Bay in weather under 40 degrees with a 15-0 win at Chicago in 2002 and is the first coach to win three division titles in franchise history.
He has received a lot of criticism during his tenure with the Bucs, especially after last season's 4-12 record, but Gruden has done a lot for this franchise since taking over in 2002. Spurlock's kickoff return was just another feather in his career cap in Tampa Bay.
GARCIA RETURNS TO SAN FRANCISCO Bucs quarterback Jeff Garcia is making his first return to San Francisco as a starter since leaving the 49ers in free agency after the 2003 season. Garcia spent five seasons with San Francisco, leading the 49ers to the playoffs twice and was 35-36 as a starter. He was with Philadelphia last year when they defeated the 49ers, 38-24, but he was a backup to Donovan McNabb and didn't play.
Garcia is excited to get the chance to go back to San Francisco, where he started his NFL career, and get to play in front of family and friends. He was born in Gilroy, California and went to San Jose State in college.
"It's going to be my first time going back to San Francisco and actually playing," Garcia said on Sunday. "This gives me an opportunity to go back and be in place where a lot of great memories were built within myself as a player. The opportunity to play for the San Francisco 49ers was a dream come true in many ways because I grew up an hour south of San Francisco."
Gruden realizes what this means to his fiery quarterback and feels he's going to be ready to play this Sunday.
"I'm sure it's big for him. He's an emotional guy and he had an unbelievable run in San Francisco. I think he loved it out there," Gruden said. "I'm sure it will be emotional for him and should be. It's a great feeling to go back where you came from and perform."
The Bucs as a franchise, however, have never been successful on the West Coast with a 6-26 record in regular season games in the states of Arizona, California and Washington since 1976. Since Gruden took over the Bucs in 2002, the Bucs are 0-6 on the West Coast, including a 15-10 loss at San Francisco in 2005, coincidentally, the last time Tampa Bay made the playoffs.
Tampa Bay does know how to win on the West Coast which was evident by their 48-21 Super Bowl victory vs. the Oakland Raiders when playing in San Diego. Gruden doesn't have an explanation for the struggles on the West Coast, but is looking to get a victory on Sunday.
"Since the Super Bowl, we have not played worth a damn on the West Coast," Gruden said. "I don't know what it is. We have looked at the hotels we have stayed in. We have left on Friday and Saturday. We have not played well there or coached well on the West Coast. This will give us an opportunity to redeem ourselves."
The Bucs lost 20-6 vs. Seattle as Tampa Bay had to open the season on the West Coast. Tampa Bay is looking for a better road trip this time around.
WINNING THE BATTLE IN THE TRENCHES The Bucs defense has moved into the No. 3 ranking in total defense in the NFL and the running game is ranked 10th thanks to the hard work of the big guys in the trenches. The Bucs defensive line has recorded 30 sacks this season, surpassing last year's total of 25, and is creating turnovers again.
The offensive line has made a steady improvement this season, even with the injury to left tackle Luke Petitgout, and is on the verge of blocking for a 1,000-yard running back in Earnest Graham. What's more impressive about the current unit is they have only been playing together for 10 games. Right tackle Jeremy Trueblood and right guard Davin Joseph played most of last season together, along with center John Wade, but left guard Arron Sears is a rookie and left tackle Donald Penn is filling in for Petitgout.
"I'm impressed with them. As I've said, the right side we have two great players there [Trueblood and Joseph]. Two guys that are going to be seven, eight, nine, 10, 12-year starters if they can stay healthy and I believe Sears is having as good of a rookie season as I've ever seen in football at left guard as a rookie. He's got rare ability and I don't want to say too many nice things about Donald Penn because he can't take it. I'm a positive reenforcer. Those four guys have gotten better and John Wade has been the key. He's delivering the ball and making the calls and is a big part of it too."
The last time the Bucs finished in the top 10 in rushing was in 2000 when it was ranked 9th in the NFL. Tampa Bay was inconsistent running the ball last season and finished 28th in rushing. Despite the injuries in the backfield this season, the running game has continued to improve and it starts up front.
The defensive line has witnessed a youth movement with the emergence of defensive ends Greg White and rookie Gaines Adams. White is leading the team with eight sacks and tied the franchise record with his seventh forced fumble of the season. Adams is second on the team with six sacks and has improved tremendously since receiving more playing time due to the calf injury to defensive end Greg Spires.
Gruden is satisfied with the pressure that he's getting from his defensive line and expects more of it as the Bucs head into the playoffs.
"They are doing better and if you watch [New York] Giants they are doing pretty good, too," Gruden said. "We are after the best pass rush in football and I think our guys don't feel like I'm being critical of them. I'm trying to challenge them in a positive way for the most part. That's the winning edge in pro football in my opinion. If you don't get to other team's passer, they are just too good and they cut you up and pick you apart. We are better and have shown improvement."
INJURY REPORT Gruden said that Spires could get some playing time on Sunday vs. San Francisco for the first time since injuring his calf vs. the Jaguars. The Bucs, however, may have lost defensive end Patrick Chukwurah for this Sunday's contest with a hamstring injury.
QUOTE OFTHE DAY Gruden commenting on many players stepping up off the bench to help in the success of this year's team.
"Really I credit [Hall of Fame head coach] Bill Walsh with that. When he did visit us [during the 2005 offseason] he brought that up repeatedly. When you go in and replace a starter, you have to play as good or better than the guy you are replacing. That is something we've talked about for a long time since he's made that comment. Fortunately for us we have got I think some better players now then we have had here. Not only the front line players, but the depth of the team is improved and really it's the whole body of work, the OTA's and training camp. Guys have really worked hard to prepare themselves for these opportunities."
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