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Bucs' McFarland: 'I'm ready' to return to starting lineup

Tampa Bay defensive tackle is eager to return from fractured forearm, face Vick-led Falcons.

By ROGER MILLS, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published December 4, 2002


TAMPA -- Standing on the practice field Friday, two days before the Bucs gave up 99 yards to Saints running back Deuce McAllister, coach Jon Gruden joked about how much he wanted Anthony "Booger" McFarland back in the lineup.

We know now Gruden wasn't joking.

McFarland makes a difference and his return couldn't be more timely for the Bucs, with Michael Vick, T.J. Duckett and the Atlanta Falcons in town Sunday and first place in the NFC South Division on the line.

"I don't want to jinx myself and speak too soon, but I plan to get back completely this week and play on Sunday," McFarland said Tuesday. "I'm ready."

The starting defensive tackle, who teams with Warren Sapp to make it very difficult to run up the middle, possibly could have played Sunday against the Saints had the Bucs not had four regular-season games remaining.

To Gruden's chagrin, the safer decision was to give McFarland's fractured right forearm one more week to heal. Now the team is eager to see him on the field because he will be needed to help contain Vick and Duckett.

"As far as I'm concerned, I look forward to the challenge of those guys," McFarland said. "That's part of it. Michael Vick is a great player, but I'm a professional and doing my thing is getting to the quarterback and playing the way I know how to play."

Defensive line coach Rod Marinelli said McFarland's return brings experience and savvy to the front four and adds "lateral quickness" to the team's ability to rush the passer and stop the run.

"It's great to have him back because we're talking about a guy who was playing at a Pro Bowl level," Marinelli said. "It's something we've been waiting on for five weeks, obviously. Now Mac can be fresh, but if he is not on his fundamentals, it won't help us right now. Freshness won't count. But I know Mac and he'll be on his fundamentals."

When the injury precisely happened remains unclear but there was a point in the Carolina game on Oct. 27 when McFarland's forearm was an obvious problem. In the third quarter Panthers quarterback Randy Fasani scampered toward a first down and the only thing McFarland could do, unable to use the arm to tackle, was chest bump him out of bounds.

The Bucs knew then McFarland would be out for 6-8 weeks while the bone healed and the arm regained its strength.

"All phases of his game were very strong; he was playing the run extremely well at the point of attack," Marinelli said. "He's one of the rare nose tackles who can play sideline to sideline on screens, draws or whatever and he was rushing the quarterback very well. People were having to pay close attention to him as well as Warren."

In McFarland's absence, backups Chartric Darby, Buck Gurley and Ellis Wyms held their own. During that time, the Bucs won three of four and the defense's stronghold as the best in the NFL did not lessen.

"His return is critical but first you have to say that Chuck, Buck and Ellis came in and played hard and the team went 3-1 in this quarter with those guys playing nose tackle," Marinelli said. "They did a tremendous job for us. But Mac is a Pro Bowl-caliber nose tackle. Those four years of playing, his veteran experience, his mass (6 feet, 300 pounds), those are essential."

McFarland said the time on the sideline was valuable only in that it gave him a different perspective of the game.

"You get a chance to watch the game from a different angle, it's totally different," he said. "But it's not a situation I want to be in too often. I much rather want to be on the field. It was a medical reason for me sitting out against the Saints and it made sense.

"But once I step on the field (Sunday), I'm ready. That responsibility is part of my job. I've worked hard to become a part of this defense and I have to continue to work hard. It's an 11-man show, all guys coming together and I want to be a part of that 11."

The Bucs want that too and hope three days of full practice will go by with no glitches. Marinelli said McFarland's rebaptism begins today, when the Bucs start preparation for the Falcons.

"The biggest thing is mentally the guy feels like he has all the weapons, namely his hands," Marinelli said. "The No. 1 thing is you don't skip any steps. You go back to his alignment and keys and never assume the basics.

"It's like the first day of the offseason: proper steps, proper keys, they are habits you can get out off when you're missing the daily work. Like a baseball player missing three months, the timing of his swing will be off. So we'll focus on that, his footwork, pad level, where his eyes belong. Get those keys back and he'll be back."


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