With all the injuries the Bucs have faced this season, the depth and veteran leadership has had to guide this team to an 8-4 record and on the verge of winning the NFC South division championship. There are several backups that have been called in to duty during the year and have filled in with solid performances. The star power on Tampa Bay's squad is minimal and they have embraced the "team" aspect that has been preached to win games.
That attitude was never more evident then in last Sunday's 27-23 victory vs. the New Orleans Saints. With two minutes remaining in the fourth quarter and the Bucs facing a huge fourth-and-1 play, center Matt Lehr had to come into the game to replace an injured John Wade. Lehr led the rest of the drive which culminated with a touchdown reception by tight end Jerramy Stevens, his first with the Bucs.
Left tackle Donald Penn has had to fill in for left tackle Luke Petitgout after he sustained a season-ending knee injury. Running back Earnest Graham has stepped up after injuries to Cadillac Williams (knee) and Michael Pittman (ankle). Rookie defensive end Gaines Adams has made major strides in the last four weeks after a calf injury sidelined defensive end Greg Spires.
Unlike in 2006, the depth of the Bucs has allowed them to stay afloat and even get better despite all the injuries. Everyone on the team is buying into the one-game-at-a-time motto and the youth on the team is motivating the veterans as much as the veterans are lending experience to the younger players. Veteran linebacker Derrick Brooks knew the Bucs had it even before the season started.
"That part of it in some areas, yes, because of what we went through last year and how we finished out games. I knew our young players were buying in to what we were selling, the veteran players. You look at all our games outside maybe a couple, we didn't get blown out," Brooks said. "We played and lost the game because we didn't play well and we turned the ball over, but we played hard. That was a foundation really being set for this year and the kids were buying in what we were telling them. It wasn't easy to motivate a team that lost that many games, but we found a way to do it every week and they bought into it. So that chemistry part of it I knew was good. Now it's how do you get better out on the field. We know we are going to play hard, we know we are going to lead the league in effort. Now how can that maturate into how I can play better technique-wise, study-wise the little things and all that seems to be coming together."
The vast improvement of the offense and the defense this season has given Bucs fans not only a sign that the future is bright, but that the present is looking pretty good as well. Tampa Bay has all but clinched the NFC South division and is battling for playoff position heading down the stretch of the regular season. The Bucs still have an outside shot of capturing the No. 2 seed in the NFC, but also needs to continue to win games to get the No. 3 seed which would send them to Green Bay instead of Dallas for the second round.
Brooks, however, isn't worried about clinching a division title or playoff position because he understands that if the Bucs keep winning all of that will take care of itself.
"We are going to continue to be single-minded and that's not going to change. I think that has been our strength to be in where we are at. Take our goals daily, achieve them and move on to the next day," Brooks said. "I think by having that the team is starting to realize how important that is and it doesn't change now going into the fourth quarter. All those things remain the same. We will accomplish them when we accomplish it, but it's not going to change anything that we do on a daily basis. Knowing that we have a division title to play for or whatever seed we are at, all that is not going to matter."
Wide receiver Joey Galloway, who's having another Pro-Bowl-caliber season, has played for three difference franchises and has never been a part of a team that has endured and succeeded as has this year's Bucs team. Galloway leads the team with 891 yards receiving (18.2 avg.) on 49 catches and six touchdowns. He's noticed that the locker room has been as tight as he's ever seen in his career.
"I've never dealt with the kind of injuries that we've had to deal with for one team. When you lose three running backs [Williams, Pittman and fullback Mike Alstott] – of course every team I've been on has lost the quarterback along the way – a left tackle [Petitgout], we've lost some key guys," Galloway said. "We always talk about having depth, always talk about if guys go down the backup has to step up and carry on just like the starter is in there. It has truly happened and these guys that have had to do that there the guys that carry the team to be able to step in and do that. I've really never been a part of anything like that."
Tampa Bay's season is looking similar to the play of the New England Patriots in 2001 when they made their improbable run to a Super Bowl title. The Patriots leaned on a running game that was led by a journeyman running back in Antowain Smith, a passing attack that was good enough to put points on the board and a defense that found ways to make plays.
The Patriots failed to rank in the top 20 in total offense, total defense and yards passing, but ranked 13th in rushing. Even though the Patriots needed a little luck in the playoffs – the infamous Tom Brady "tuck rule" game vs. the Oakland Raiders that coincidentally was coached by current Bucs head coach Jon Gruden – there was no one that gave them a chance vs. the St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI, but New England captured the championship with a 20-17 win.
The Bucs, however, are ranked in the top five in the NFL in total defense and pass defense and rank 12th in the league in rushing and 19th in total offense. Tampa Bay's third-string running back, Earnest Graham, is steadily approaching the 1,000-yard milestone (737 yards rushing and seven touchdowns), quarterback Jeff Garcia is quietly having a Pro-Bowl type season (2,135 yards passing and 11 touchdowns) and Galloway gives the Bucs a deep threat in the passing game.
However, no one is giving the Bucs any kind of a chance of advancing in the playoffs if they have to travel to Green Bay or Dallas. Many experts feel as though the Cowboys have too much offense for any team to stop them in the NFC, much like the feeling about the Patriots in 2001 when facing St. Louis' "Greatest Show on Turf" offense. There's still a lot of football left to play in the regular season and the postseason, but it's not a far-fetched idea to think that the Bucs can't make some noise in the playoffs in the NFC.
Gruden keeps pointing to the veteran additions to the team including Garcia, defensive end Kevin Carter and fullback B.J. Askew along with the play of rookies in guard Arron Sears and safety Tanard Jackson as to the difference of the team. There's just a different feeling on the team and in the locker room this season and it's come from everyone working for the Bucs.
"It's a credit to the players and the assistant coaches, the trainers and the equipment people," Gruden said. "We brought in a lot of new players and I think they've helped bring that along. And winning certainly helps."
Winning is something this season's team has done a lot more of in 2007 and plans on doing more of as it heads toward the playoffs.
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