The nature of the NFL is such that one man’s misfortune presents another’s opportunity.

While no player wants to see a teammate fall to injury, rookie wide receiver Maurice Stovall is hoping to take advantage of more playing time against Atlanta on Sunday following Michael Clayton’s knee injury and placement on the injured reserve list.

“As far as Clayton being down and injured, you know, unfortunately that had to happen,” Stovall said. “But it’s time for another receiver to step up, you know, show the team what they can do, show the veterans and coaching staff that I deserve to be here.”

Bucs head coach Jon Gruden said times like these require a team and individual players to step up.  

“We’re looking for everybody to step up,” said Gruden. “Ike Hilliard will have to step up, and Maurice Stovall will get some snaps. Paris Warren will as well. If somebody goes down, you have to step up. That’s one of the reasons why you’re on the football team.”

Clayton strained his MCL in the third quarter of Sunday’s game in Pittsburgh. He had 33 receptions for 356 yards and just one touchdown while starting all 12 games this season, but has been widely criticized for several key dropped passes.

Stovall claims to be fully recovered from a back injury that kept him out of the lineup last month, and says he is comfortable with all three receiving positions. He will not take Clayton’s No. 2 receiver spot. That will be filled by veteran Ike Hilliard. Stovall moves into the No. 3 receiver slot.

“You prepare each week as if you are playing because you never know what can happen,” Stovall said. “I’m going to try to take as much advantage of my opportunity as I can and make plays when called upon.”

Exactly why the third-round draft pick has not been called upon more this season is debatable. He has just one catch for 11 yards in five game appearances.

Earlier this season in New Orleans, he caught an apparent touchdown, but it was negated when he was flagged for offensive interference. Last week in Pittsburgh, on a nearly identical fade pattern in the end zone, Stovall failed to outmaneuver cornerback Bryant McFadden, who intercepted quarterback Bruce Gradkowski’s pass.

At 6-foot-5, 220 pounds, Stovall’s red zone value was considered high when the Bucs drafted him, especially since he finished his career at Notre Dame third in Irish history with 18 touchdown receptions. But he is 0-for-2 so far on touchdown opportunities.

Points in general have come at a premium this season for the Tampa Bay offense, and when it comes to red zone passing efficiency, only one receiver other than Joey Galloway (5) has multiple touchdown receptions. That player is tight end Alex Smith, who has two touchdowns.

As the depth chart moves up one notch, the chances that wide receiver Paris Warren gets more looks this Sunday increase as well. Like Stovall, he has just one reception this season to speak of.

Warren has been waiting very patiently for his opportunity to make a difference and all the while making use of his time on the sidelines to learn from veterans like Hilliard and Galloway.

“It’s hard,” Warren said of not being more involved. “But, I’ve always been a patient person and I just wait for my shot. That’s one piece of advice some of the older guys around here have told me, be patient. Wait for your time to come.”

The second-year player out of Utah has played just four games in two seasons, all coming this year. But he has no reservations in saying, “If I get my opportunity, I’ll make something of it.”
His one reception this year did go for 26 yards, plus his chemistry with quarterback Bruce Gradkowski was a hit in the pre-season.  

“If I’m in the game, he knows I know how to get open,” Warren said of Gradkowski.

It’s hard to rattle a 10-year veteran wide out Ike Hilliard. In a decade of football, he’s seen just about everything, wining and losing, injuries and success. Rarely does he break a monotone voice in the locker room. In fact, he’s about as level headed a player as you’ll find in the league.

So when adversity strikes, like it has the Bucs this season, or young players need guidance, like Warren seeks, he’s a good guy to go to.

“Some guys are going to get a good look,” Hilliard said. “Allow coaches to do what they do and once that’s done if there are any other questions, football-related or non-football-related, we’re here.

“We try to shed light on what we can. I don’t look at it as mentoring or tutoring, these guys have played football for a long time. If there’s anything to do to help the situation, we will.”

Popular opinion might point to the Bucs wide receiving corps having a big day against the Falcons’ suspect secondary, a unit ranked 31st of 32 teams. But Tampa Bay’s passing offense isn’t striking fear into anyone these days. They’re ranked 29th.

Hilliard doesn’t doubt that this may be the week the team opens up its air attack, but he is quick to caution about being over confident, saying he and the offense must first put together a complete game before going out with the notion they have the ability to exploit any team.

While the scores and statistics say otherwise, running back Cadillac Williams still believes the Bucs offense has the potential to succeed.

Nobody on the offense seems to be able to produce a clear answer as to why they are ranked last in the NFC in yards per game (242.2) and last in the entire NFL in scoring, averaging 12.1 points per game.

Often times, players and coaches say they are not concerned with statistics, but when you’re dead last, you know it.

“Playing this game of football, whether you’re winning or losing, it’s the mental part that’s the toughest,” Williams said. “Just experience-wise, experiencing last year, it’s that mental aspect. You have to have that strong mind and that strong will. It’s tough times right now, but as a man, I’m not going to tuck my tail and run.”

Williams says with the talent that is present on the offense, there is no way they should be struggling like this. On his part, he knows he needs to protect the ball better. He had a long talk with running backs coach Art Valero about his fumbles last week in Pittsburgh. Valero said his mishandling of the ball was not a matter of proper form or carelessness, but him trying to fight for extra yardage. He doesn’t want to see that aggressive mentality change.

If Bruce Gradkowski had a nickel for every time he mentioned the word execution, he might be a million dollar quarterback. Perhaps more than ever, this season, the rookie is feeling the pressure. But three interceptions and five sacks in one game can have that effect.

As the rope Coach Gruden affords him gets shorter and the scrutiny of fans and the media increases, Gradkowski knows his honeymoon as the starting QB may be coming to an end.

“Of course being 3-9, everyone is going to get looked at,” Gradkowski said. “I’m sure [Coach Gruden] will be looking at me over these next four games.”

Bad decisions, inconsistencies and an inability to protect the football as of late has dropped Gradkowski into the unwanted position of having the lowest passer rating in the NFC at 66.1. That’s three points less than the Cowboys QB Drew Bledsoe, who has been benched, and six points less than Rex Grossman, who many Bears fans are calling for to be benched.

You can argue that the Cowboys and the Bears are under different circumstances than Tampa Bay. However, things need to change, and change soon, and Gradkowski knows that.

“I’m not satisfied at all,” Gradkowski said. “I definitely can be doing better than I am, there’s no question about that. I want to improve over these next four weeks and show signs of improvement. That’s just being well prepared, coming into games and playing with confidence and just executing.”
Gradkowski said even if he had nine touchdowns and zero interceptions, he still wouldn’t feel secure. He’s aware that in the NFL you have to win your job on a week-to-week basis. This Sunday may be his final litmus test.

“You learn a lot going through the tough times,” he said. “Tough times don’t last, but tough people do. We’ll look back at this time in a couple years and be smiling about it.”

Anyone who works out at Lifestyle Family Fitness on North Dale Mabry may have seen a very determined young man running on the treadmill the last couple of weeks with his cell phone close at hand.

For wide receiver/punt returner  Mark Jones, being on the bubble means being prepared at any minute. And when Clayton went down with the knee injury, Tampa Bay gave Jones a call, re-signing him after Clayton was placed on injured reserve.

Jones played in four regular season games this season, returning 13 punts for 109 yards before being released on Nov. 13. He says it’s good to be back and there are no hard feelings about being released.

“I know it’s a business and make they have to make decisions,” he said. “I understand why they brought me back and I’m glad to have another job. I liked working out at Lifestyles but it’s not the same as being here.”

Some are a little bit bigger. Some considerably smaller. Some might even have a touch of grey. But when as many as 120 former Buccaneer players get together this weekend for the Bucs’ first-ever Alumni Weekend, it will be a giant step in bridging the past and the present.

On Monday, Hall of Famer Lee Roy Selmon addressed the media, saying this would hopefully be the first of many steps moving forward.
“I think perhaps there was a little bit of a disconnection for a while there,” Selmon said. “But I know under the current ownership and starting with, I think, Coach [Tony] Dungy, and Coach [Jon] Gruden has carried it on, that really opened the doors to welcome all the former players back.

“Certainly, things have changed. Certainly, this new building here is exciting. I know a lot of the players who have not seen it yet will really be amazed, as I’ve been, with just the change in the game itself and certainly the facilities that surround the game as well, including the stadium. That’s a part of it. We’re excited about it and we’re happy for our team. We are alumni of the Buccaneers and we are excited about everything that happens in this organization.”

There will be an on-field tribute to the players at halftime of Sunday’s game between Tampa Bay and Atlanta.

Pro Bowl linebacker Hardy Nickerson, Pro Bowl center Tony Mayberry, running back Reggie Cobb, guard Ian Beckles and cornerback Donnie Abraham are a few of the names that will be on hand.

“It’s going to be an honor to be there,” said Beckles who now hosts a morning sports talk radio show on AM 620 WDAE. “It will be nice to run into some people I haven’t seen in a while and reminisce. And I’m sure there will be some good stories told.”

Beckles, a captain of the second decade era team along with Mayberry, says he stays in touch with a dozen or more former teammates on a regular basis.

He says he thinks offensive linemen are more likely to keep ties after retiring because of their relationship as a unit on the field.

At Monday’s press conference, Selmon was asked whether he would like to see a Buccaneer Ring of Honor added to Raymond James Stadium, like so many other organizations have incorporated to honor their alumni.

“I think there would be a lot of players that are well deserving to be included in that ring of honor including Derrick [Brooks] himself,” Selmon said. “So I think this team has evolved. They determine different things that they might want to do in recognition of players past and if that’s one of the things that could be instituted, I’m sure all of us as old guys now would welcome that.”

Brooks has championed the cause and a day such as this for some time now. He says it’s not about players like him, former safety John Lynch or former defensive tackle Warren Sapp, it’s more about establishing the players from the past.

“You really don’t know where you’re going until you know where you come from,” Brooks said. “And honoring history, as I’ve said in past years and I’ve been very outspoken about,  is something we need to do. Every other NFL team does that and I think we need to do that in our own right. This weekend is a real big step”

Following Wednesday’s practice, Coach Gruden echoed those sentiments.

“I’m really proud of this,” said Gruden. “I think this is a huge step forward for our football organization. You have a tradition, whether it’s standing on the sideline at Pittsburgh or standing on the sideline at Dallas. You can smell the tradition. You’re proud of the tradition they have.

“We’ve had some great players here, and we need to acknowledge our tradition and some of the great players that have played here. The only way you can do that is by giving them a special time, whether it be an hour or two on the golf course or whatever it is. It’s great to acknowledge our own Buccaneers, and it’s great to have them back. Hopefully some of them can still play – we might need them.”  

When asked if the little things holding back the Bucs offense get aggravating after a while, quarterback Bruce Gradkowski said;

“This is a game of inches and you can tell that just by being out there playing. We’re close, we’re very close but we’re still far away. We need to keep working hard and just prepare the best we can.”

Cornerback Juran Bolden (quadricep), TE Alex Smith (ankle), LB Shelton Quarles (knee/ankle) and DT Ellis Wyms (ankle) were all limited in practice Wednesday and are listed as questionable. Coach Jon Gruden said he is hopeful they’ll be ready to play.

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