The Buccaneers have missed the play of left guard Arron Sears this year, but there were no hard feelings from his teammates upon his return to One Buccaneer Place on Tuesday after what the team has deemed a “personal and private matter” that has kept him away from football since the first mini-camp in April.
In fact, his offensive line teammates have welcomed Sears back with open arms.
“There’s no hard feelings at all,” Bucs right guard Davin Joseph said. “It’s a bonus for us that he’s come back. He’s a hell of a player. He can add a lot to us. He always has and I guarantee you he will. There are definitely no hard feelings. He’s been through something that many guys haven’t been through. It was great to see him back.”
Left tackle Donald Penn, who lined up next to Sears during the last two seasons since the left guard was selected out of Tennessee in the second round of the 2007 NFL Draft, agreed with Joseph’s point that there are no hard feelings regarding his AWOL status over the last seven months.
“He didn’t let us down,” Penn said. “That thought never crossed my mind at all. I knew what was going on with him and I’m happy he’s back. He’s determined now. He loves this game. I might even say he loves this even more than I do. He loves playing football. He’s determined to come back and show people what he can do. He’s mad that he’s missed time this season. I think he is determined to turn everything around and show everybody the player he can become. He’s a great person on and off the field. I know his mentality and it’s the same mentality that everybody has on this offensive line. He’s going to be on top of his game.”
Sears’ teammates haven’t seen too much of him since he returned because of his focus on conditioning and getting back into playing shape.
“I haven’t talked to him too much,” Joseph said. “Every time I see him, he’s off doing something like lifting. He’s working out. I haven’t had much time to talk to him.
“It feels good to have him back. It feels real good. He’s a great dude. He’s a great individual. It’s great to see him back at the complex. We’ll see what happens. He has a lot of hard work ahead of him to get back to where he was at and to progress to the player that he can be.”
Penn has been in constant contact with Sears because the two players have been close friends and he said that Sears’ return lifts the offense’s spirits.
“He hasn’t really been gone in my eyes,” Penn said. “I’ve talked to him every couple days. He hasn’t been gone. He just hasn’t been around here. He brings another dimension to the offensive line that we’ve been missing. Now we’ll have another set of smiles and another set of cracking jokes around here that is going to help us through this hard season that we’ve been going through.”
Penn knows what has been troubling Sears during his time away from the team, but did not disclose it to the media, only saying that it was somewhat frustrating that he couldn’t do more to help him.
“Sears is one of those guys where he never is going to ask for help,” said Penn. “I always put it out there. Each time I talked to him before I hung up the phone I’d say, ‘Hey, if you need anything don’t hesitate to ask.’ I never got a call from him asking me for help. He’s a strong-minded guy and wants to do everything himself. I think that will help him on the way back here. He doesn’t need anybody pushing him. He’s pushing himself.”
“I could understand what he was going through a lot. We’ve had some of those issues in my family. I’m happy he’s back. It was hard trying to reach out to him because a few times he didn’t want to reach back. I had to call his brother a few times and say, ‘Make sure he calls me. Sit by him and make sure he calls me.’ That happened a few times earlier, but then we started talking more and more. I’m so happy to see the guy back.”
Sears’ absence has been felt this year in more ways than one on the gridiron where Tampa Bay’s offense has fallen to the 28th-ranked unit in the NFL in 2009. Second-year player Jeremy Zuttah was expected to battle Sears for the left guard job in training camp, but was instead awarded the position without much competition. Zuttah has played well at times as a starter, but the team had expected Sears, who was entering his third year in the NFL, to continue to ascend as a player.
Without Sears on the active roster this year, the Bucs were forced to keep Zuttah at left guard while his skill set was most needed at center during the four-week absence of starter Jeff Faine, who was out due to a triceps injury. With Sears on the team, Zuttah could have seen time at center, which may be his more natural position, instead of Sean Mahan, whose poor play during that four-game stretch ultimately cost him his job.
“It is good that he is back,” Faine said. “It is good to see him. That’s the biggest thing. Then we’ll just see how it goes.”
Faine admitted he had no idea how where Sears was conditioning-wise.
“I actually I’ve only seen him face-to-face, so I haven’t seen him do anything yet,” said Faine. “I have no idea. We’ve exchanged text messages here and there. When I saw Arron I saw a smile on his face, and like I said it is just good to have him back. It’s really it is good to see him. He’s a good friend.”
However, Bucs head coach Raheem Morris, who is glad to have Sears back, disclosed that the offensive lineman is "significantly overweight."
Sears has a two-week roster exemption in which the team can gauge his physical conditioning before deciding whether he should be added to the 53-man roster or if he should go back on a non-football reserve list. When Bucs general manager Mark Dominik fielded questions from the media regarding Sears and informed reporters that Sears would not be made available for questioning on Wednesday morning, he said it would be “wishful thinking” to think that Sears would see action in any games this year because he is so far behind in his conditioning and also in learning the playbook.
“I don’t think any athlete can leave the game for a half a year and come back and be where they want or need to be,” said Penn. “It’s going to take time. I know during the offseason I take off the first month and during the month I’m starting back up it’s tough. I couldn’t imagine trying to do it after six months or so. The good thing about Sears is he is self-motivated. I know he’s going to come back and do whatever it takes to get back on the field.”â€¨â€¨Sears’ teammates were cautiously optimistic that he could help the team this year at least in practice should be rejoin team practices at some point and be activated to the 53-man roster.
“Sears is a great player,” Penn said. “He gives us great depth. I think he may have more starts than I have. I don’t know. He’s going to help us out tremendously. He’s just scratching the surface of his potential. He’s going to be playing football for us for a long time. I’m glad to have him back.”
Penn acknowledges that Sears likely won’t see any action in 2009 while he gets back into football shape after his seven-month absence, but that he will definitely boost the competition level at left guard next year.
“Sears immediately adds depth,” Penn said. “Next year is going to be a big battle between he and Zuttah. That’s what football is all about.”