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Of all of the preseason injuries that hit Tampa Bay’s revamped offensive line prior to the start of the 2004 regular season, one stood out as the most devastating.
It was not left tackle Derrick Deese’s foot injury that required surgery and prompted him to miss most of training camp and the first three preseason games. Second-year left tackle Anthony Davis had one of the best showings of any player on the roster in the exhibition season and could step in ably at a moment’s notice.
It was not a swollen knee that hampered right tackle Todd Steussie. Although Kenyatta Walker had a similar situation with one of his own knees, the right tackle spot had a capable backup in place.
It was not a calf strain that caused left guard Matt Stinchcomb to miss a lot of camp time and the first two preseason games. Cosey Coleman had a pretty good training camp and had the experience to play left guard if necessary while rookie Jeb Terry could step in at right guard, or the Bucs could simply opt to go with second-year player Sean Mahan at left guard.
No, the preseason injury that was most damaging to the Buccaneers’ hopes for improved line play hit the team well before the season started when 10-year guard Matt O’Dwyer tore the pectoral muscle in his chest while lifting weights. Of all four of the Bucs’ new free agent offensive linemen, O’Dwyer was expected to provide the biggest impact as Tampa Bay’s play at both guard positions really struggled in 2003.
O’Dwyer, who was expected to start at left guard, is the most physical of the new foursome and was suppsed to help give this Buccaneers team an identity in the running game. He has earned the reputation of being a mauler from his days of busting holes open for Corey Dillon in Cincinnati, and was leading the way for Dillon the day he rushed for 278 yards against Denver and broke Walter Payton’s single-game rushing record. O’Dwyer helped Dillon earn a trip to the Pro Bowl by rushing for a team-record 1,435 yards.
O’Dwyer also has a history of working with offensive line coach Bill Muir dating back to their days with the New York Jets, and reuniting with Muir was a big reason why he wanted to sign with Tampa Bay.
The Bucs’ offensive line play has been inconsistent through the team’s 1-4 start while he has been a spectator, and could use a boost. That boost may come from O’Dwyer, who is forced to sit out just one more week on the PUP (physically unable to perform) list while he continues to recover from his torn pectoral muscle.
“Every day I’m starting to feel a little bit stronger,” O’Dwyer said. “The big thing now is that I’ve got it mended pretty good, I just have to get it stronger. I’m probably going up 20 pounds a week (weightlifting). I’ve got to go up slowly. Hopefully in a couple of weeks I’ll have the opportunity to go out on the field and work on some drills.”
While O’Dwyer will be eligible to come off of the team’s PUP list after the Bucs’ sixth game, Tampa Bay will have a 21-day period to evaluate him before it has to make a roster move. That essentially gives the 32-year old guard a few additional weeks to get back into playing shape and heal.
O’Dwyer was supposed to be the perfect tonic to ail Tampa Bay’s woes in third-and-short situations last year, which were dire after the team lost fullback Mike Alstott for the season due to a neck injury in Week 4. He was going to be the big, 6-foot-5, 305-pound mass of humanity to run behind when the ground game desperately need a yard or two. But all of that changed right before training camp when O’Dwyer grew too excited about the opportunity to play for the Buccaneers and overtrained, which led to a torn pectoral muscle.
“Coming off last year in Cincinnati and coming to Tampa, which was the team I wanted to play for, I wanted to start fresh,” O’Dwyer said. “I was training pretty hard to the point where I tore my pec. I just want to get back to where I was. That point is disappointing. Just being around here, I have a good feel for the guys and the coaches. I wanted to be a big contributor to this team. Hopefully I can go back in there and we can get this offense rolling. Hopefully, by the time I get in there we’re winning by then.”
O’Dwyer , who may be the strongest Buccaneer on the team, was attempting to bench press 500 pounds when he injured his pectoral muscle, and he knew instantly that it was a serious injury.
“I knew it was bad when I did it,” O’Dwyer said. “I thought I may have tweaked it, but I knew it was more than a tweak. I’ve tweaked my pec before. The first thing I did was I swore in my head. Then I looked at the calendar and wanted to see how long a pec takes to heal, and that put me in a good position. Now training-wise, it took me a while mentally to get understand that I basically had to start from scratch. If you tear your pec, that thing has got to heal. You can’t do anything at all until it meshes together. I’ve been doing a ton of leg exercises because I couldn’t run, but that involves using your arms. I’m slowly getting back into shape. The next three weeks will be big, but I’m not going to push it too much. I don’t have to bench 500 pounds to play in this league. I just need to get my pec strong enough to where I can get a good enough punch in.”
A quick glance at O’Dwyer tells you that he’s not a typical offensive lineman. There is no gut and no big butt on his well-defined, almost chiseled frame that was crafted through several years of avid weightlifting. In fact, O’Dwyer looks more like a participant in a strong man competition than an offensive guard.
“I’ve always liked weightlifting,” O’Dwyer said. “I think it has always been my thing. I’ve always liked weight training ever since my high school days.”
“I don’t know if I’ve ever had the true technical soundness to play offensive line. Some of the guys are technically sound. I’m technical sometimes. But sometimes I stray from technique and just get it done with my strength .You know, just try a maul a guy.”
When asked if O’Dwyer minded being called a “mauler,” he said, “Well, I’d like to be known as the highest paid guard in the league. Do I like [being known as ‘mauler’]? I think when guys play me they know they’re in for a fight. They know that I’m going to do whatever it takes to beat them. I’ve always been a physical player.
“Sometimes that gets me into trouble. I’d have a guy blocked pretty good and have him in a perfect position and decide to slam him down and make him pay. The ref will think I was too violent and throw a flag on me. That’s always been my problem. So I have to do my job, stay physical, and punish a guy without getting caught.”
Of all of the injuries that could happen to an offensive lineman, a torn pectoral muscle could be considered one of the most detrimental due to the fact that at the snap of the ball his job is to punch and essentially bench press a defensive lineman to either pave the way for a running back or protect the passer.
“Well, it’s not a perfect press, but you’ve got to be careful,” O’Dwyer said. “If I had screwed up both pecs then I would be in trouble. But there are guys out there with bad arms or bad shoulders who compensate. I’ll have to compensate a little bit and let one arm do most of the work. It’s definitely important for the O-line in pass protection and run blocking. You definitely have to hold on to the guy, you can’t just drive block them with your legs. You still need your upper body to get some leverage.”
O’Dwyer, who signed a one-year deal for the veteran minimum of $730,000 with only $480,000 counting against the salary cap because he received just a $25,000 signing bonus, said he was relieved that the timing of his pec injury allowed him to return to action in 2004. When he is ready to return in a few weeks, it is unclear exactly where he will play and whether or not he will be called upon to start. That will largely be determined by his health and the play of Coleman and Stinchcomb. But the fact that the Bucs did not end his season by placing him on injured reserve is a sign that they believe he can really contribute at some capacity this season.
“I hope that there is faith there,” O’Dwyer said of the team’s decision to place him on the PUP list instead of IR. “Maybe they don’t want to waste their money.
“I think the guys they’ve got out there on the line are working their tails off. Things haven’t really jelled as much as they wanted to right now. Hopefully they get it going. I do have the experience. I have played both sides at guard. I can swing left or right if need be. I’m close to being ready. I’ll give it my all when I’m in there.”
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