McFarland has one wish: full season

The defensive lineman has missed significant time in two of the past three seasons with injuries but is healthy now.

Published July 31, 2005

LAKE BUENA VISTA - If there is a price to be paid, so be it. What wouldn't the Bucs give to have Anthony McFarland in the lineup for an entire season?

As if his small sacrifice will somehow ward off injury demons, Bucs coach Jon Gruden already has made an offering.

"I'm giving him my parking space at One Buc for as long as he's here," Gruden said. "I mean it. I'm going to let him have my space every day that he is out there on that field."

You can't blame him. The Bucs defense, which has enjoyed a top 10 ranking for eight straight seasons, is even more formidable when McFarland is parked at under tackle.

"I honestly feel this way. You give me 16 games, man, you give me 16 games out on the field, playing within this defense with the guys we've got, I like my chances," McFarland said. "I really do. And that's not bragging, I just like my chances. I like my chances of what I can do playing 16 games."

But the odds of the 6-foot, 300-pound McFarland surviving an entire season seem to decrease with the years. In the past three seasons, he has missed 17 games, including playoffs.

A torn right triceps put him on injured reserve last year after eight games. McFarland's Super Bowl season in 2002 was marred by two significant injuries, forcing him to miss six regular-season games and all three in the postseason.

At the midway point that year, he fractured his right forearm at Carolina, missing the next four games. In his second game after returning, McFarland fractured his right foot at Detroit and was done.

Players wait their entire career and never get a sniff of the Super Bowl. In the biggest game of his life, McFarland wasn't able to cross the white lines.

Of course, by the very nature of the injuries, none of this is particularly his fault.

"These weren't like injuries where they were just flaring-type injuries and he was slow to come around," defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin said. "These were season-ending injuries and he can't control that. He's just had some tough luck here."

But who wants to hear that? Not the Bucs, who signed him to a six-year, $34-million contract that included a $9.5-million signing bonus in 2003. Not the media that constantly has made inevitable comparisons between McFarland and eight-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Warren Sapp. And not the fans, who believe McFarland's 18 career sacks in 78 games fall shy of his promise as the team's first-round pick in '99 out of LSU. In fact, on the first day of training camp, McFarland was heckled from the bleachers at Disney's Wide World of Sports. "Hey, Booger. You going to play this year?" the man bellowed.

But McFarland blows it all off like a fly from a Ferrari.

"The thing about it, that's what makes fans, fans," McFarland said. "That's what makes the game itself. You're not going to be liked by everybody, you're not going to be endeared by everybody."

In some ways, McFarland's laid-back personality has contributed to the misperceptions.

After each injury, fans seemed to want passion and got only perspective. They wanted to hear the pain in his voice and only heard patience.

"The thing about it is, most people would be afraid," McFarland said. "After you've gotten hurt, I've played six seasons, I finished four and I've been hurt two. Some people would be afraid. "Hey, what if you get hurt again?' You just go out and play, man, and that's what I'm looking forward to doing. I just go out and play ... and be what I'm supposed to be in my own head and everything will take care of itself."

By all accounts, McFarland was off to a solid start after switching from nose tackle to under tackle last season, a position for which he always has been perfectly suited. In eight games, he registered 28 tackles, one forced fumble, one recovered fumble and three sacks. What's more, he did it against some pretty solid offenses.

"That's where he wanted to play," Kiffin said. "Just the number of plays he played, his factor grade was outstanding before he got hurt. And he was playing against some good offenses. Denver, Seattle, the Redskins, some good offensive linemen. It's just one of those things where he's had some freak injuries.

"But when he's here, and you can go back through the tapes, every year before he gets hurt, he does a heck of a job, no doubt about it. It's the same way he's starting off this year. We're going to say this year he isn't going to get hurt. It's going to be Mac's year."

But here's the biggest reason to believe in McFarland. Entering his seventh NFL season, he's only 27. He has just eight games under his belt at under tackle and figures to get better with experience. When he plays, it's usually at a Pro Bowl level.

McFarland has earned the big contract, he has a Super Bowl ring. Only one thing motivates him now.

"It's about being what you're supposed to be," McFarland said. "That's what I come out here for every day, that's what I work for. I know in my mind what I can accomplish playing the three technique in this defense. What drives me is knowing that I can be what I'm supposed to be."

And as long as McFarland is driven, he will have a place to park.

"I've stopped talking about all this," Gruden said. "McFarland is here, he's healthy and I think he showed a lot of spirit coming back from his injury.

"I used to sit by the window and wait for my girlfriend to pick me up. The longer I sat there and watched for her, the longer it seemed I waited. I'm just going to see what happens."