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Bucs reserves get a chance

From the sideline to the starting line, backups try to stay ready.

By ROGER MILLS, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 5, 2002

TAMPA -- If the NFL is all about feasting on morsels of opportunity, Sunday's meaningless home game between the Bucs and the Eagles is one of those all-you-can-eat deals.

And Bucs reserves are lining up to get their grub on.

Considering Tampa Bay placed 17 players on the injured list Wednesday -- an unwritten league prerequisite that enables teams to legitimize why certain players are on the sideline and not on the field -- it is safe to say virtually anyone on the active roster will have a chance to play. It may not be ideal for television ratings or season-ticket holders, but the looming threat of injury a week before the playoffs certainly has an effect on the rotation.

"We'll have a plan as to how we're going to play and we'll feel good about winning the game, whoever is in there," Bucs coach Tony Dungy said. "We're going to try to do things the way we think is going to be best for us and I'm sure (the Eagles will) do the same thing."

Translation: There will be more Frank Murphy than Keyshawn Johnson. More Aaron Stecker than Warrick Dunn. And certainly a lot more Shaun King than Brad Johnson.

With the exception of defensive end Marcus Jones and Dunn, who are definitely out, the reality is most Bucs starters will be in uniform, and some will have to start the game. That, however, may be as far as they go.

"In preseason you've got 65 or 70 guys (on the roster)," Dungy said. "We have only 46 guys who can play, so it isn't the case where you take 25 or 30 of those 46 guys and say you're not playing them. Guys are going to have to play. Some guys will play more than others. It's the type of thing where everybody has to be ready to go, and you don't know how it's going to go."

But to guys such as Stecker, center/guard Todd Washington and cornerback Dwight Smith, players second and third on the depth chart, Sunday offers a great opportunity.

"There are two ways you can take it," Washington said. "You can take it the salty way and feel frustrated for not playing, and then all of a sudden it's like, "Oh, you want me to play now, right!" Which is the wrong way to approach it, because as soon as you adopt that type of attitude you're not going to play well.

"Or you can take the approach that you have been preparing every week assuming that you're going to play and it's not going to be a surprise to you." For Washington and a sprinkling of others, there is also the question of where they will play. Washington not only is excited about getting the most snaps in a game since he started the opener in Dallas for injured center Jeff Christy, he has a chance to play two, perhaps three, spots on the line.

"I just don't know if I'm going to play center, right guard or left guard," Washington said. "I have to be ready to play every position, and I don't know how long but hopefully it's going to be long enough for me to get some good tape. It's possible I'll play all three. I've done it before in college. It's not foreign to me."

What also should not be foreign to any of the reserves is the preparation for the game and the expectations of winning. Dungy, his coaches and the veterans have made it clear the Bucs intend to win Sunday, and that is best accomplished through solid practice.

"I just prepared like it was a normal week," said Stecker, who has played the past two seasons as Dunn's backup and seen few carries. "For me, especially with the situation Warrick has been in with his (turf) toe, I never knew when it would get bad and when I would have to go out there and play. So I had to be ready as a starter anyway."

That, Smith said, is the key to taking advantage of Sunday. Thinking as a starter leads to playing as a starter, he said.

"Every week in practice you think you're going to play," Smith said. "You're always one play away from playing 30 or 40 snaps a week. I'm the fourth corner on this team so I have to be ready to go in at any time."

But shouldn't reserves be more excited this week than normal?

"You know, it seems that way, but you're always up for that challenge every game," Smith said. "It's not like you're hoping someone gets hurt, but in the back of your mind you're on the edge, hoping to get in there. The thing is that it's more relaxing when you know you're going to play."

Added Stecker: "Yeah, it's true that (you should get excited about more playing time). But in life you don't count your chips until they are in your hand. You hear that you're going to get some more carries, but you really don't know until the game starts."

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