tampabay.com

Bye can't come too soon for Bucs

A weary, ailing team is trying to keep its energy up for one more week.

By RICK STROUD
Published November 1, 2007


TAMPA - Bucs linebacker Barrett Ruud leads the NFL in tackles, but the length of the season is what is dragging him down.

By the time he takes the field against Arizona on Sunday, Ruud will have ripped 102 days off the desk calendar since reporting to training camp.

"I haven't had a day off since Aug.30," said Ruud, 24, who reported with his teammates to Celebration on July 26. "Physically, you're hurting, but mentally, it's a grind as well.

"All I do is lay around my couch. I feel like I'm 90 most of the time. Especially from Monday to about today, it's a struggle. But it's a struggle for everybody."

That's because the Bucs' bye week, which follows the Cardinals game, will come later than it did for any team in the league save for the Patriots, Jets and Texans. What's more, Arizona will join Detroit as the second team in three weeks to play Tampa Bay following its bye.

"I don't know who made our schedule, but that ain't right," coach Jon Gruden said. "I mean, two teams out of the last (three) have had a bye week to get ready for us, and we've got 12 guys on IR. ... That's tough on you, but you're going to get their best shot."

Meanwhile, the Bucs could use an injection of talent from the list of eight injured players who did not participate in practice Wednesday or were limited. Defensive end Patrick Chukwurah (shoulder), cornerback Brian Kelly (groin) and tight end Alex Smith (ankle) have a good shot at returning Sunday. Receiver Michael Clayton (ankle) and running back Michael Pittman should at least return after the bye week for the Nov. 18 game at Atlanta. Others, such as defensive end Greg Spires (calf), aren't close to returning.

The fact remains, it's hard for the Bucs to stay upbeat when they are so beat up.

Tampa Bay's roster is primarily constructed around core veterans such as 37-year-old Jeff Garcia, 35-year-old Joey Galloway and 34-year-old Derrick Brooks, or first- and second-year players such as Davin Joseph, Arron Sears and Tanard Jackson.

Still, not everyone feels the bye is coming too late.

"I think that our bye week comes at a good time for this team to be able to get through half the season and then get a break, it's really where you want it to be," Garcia said. "I think the young guys, especially, have to understand how long of a season this is. They've already basically gone through a collegiate season at this point and it is a grind, and when you have a couple losses, that beats you up also, and you need to find a way to motivate yourself to continue to stick to a routine. And I think the key also is to not get caught up in the world of professional sports and the things that go on outside this facility. ...

"These remaining weeks ahead of us are a real critical time for this team to either make something happen or fade away in the dust, and we don't want to be fading away."

Garcia, who has committed five turnovers in losses to the Lions and Jaguars, has taken some big hits this season. But while he says his body is holding up, the losing has taken its toll.

"Physically, I'm fine," Garcia said. "I'm more mentally banged up right now than physically because I take losing so hard. It's something that does not sit well with anybody, but I think the older you get, the more you play in this league, the less opportunities that you have to look forward to in the future, every game is critical. That's what I'm battling with right now, and I will overcome it."

Players such as Jackson struggle with the sheer length of the NFL season. So Jackson says he has taken his cues from older players such as Brooks, Ronde Barber and Jermaine Phillips to pass the endurance test.

"You've never had this much free time, and in college it's a little more structured there," Jackson said. "So it's getting rest and coming in here on your days off. Like yesterday, I came in here and go into the hot tub, getting into the cold tub. Even when there's nothing wrong, it's making sure everything is right."

Despite consecutive losses, the Bucs (4-4) are in the NFC South race, a half-game behind Carolina (4-3). But the biggest opponent might be fatigue. If they can push forward through one more week, they might make a push for a division title.

"Everybody is in different stages of their career, everybody is at a different level of health and we do have a lot of young guys that are playing critical roles on our football team right now," Gruden said. "That's just something we've all got to fight through - coaches, players, trainers. That's something I am proud of on our football team. We've done a pretty good job of doing that."