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Odom tackles painful setback

The Buccaneers' starting left tackle has been unable to practice because of back pain. He's waiting on MRI.

By RICK STROUD

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 1, 2000


TAMPA -- Jason Odom is still having back pain and unable to practice. Soon, the Bucs could be hurting even worse at left tackle.

Odom said Wednesday that he has consulted with Charlotte neurologist Dr. Craig Brigham, who performed surgery on his back nearly nine months ago, to help determine the extent of his injury.

Team officials originally attributed Odom's back pain to fatigue after he complained of discomfort July 25 just three workouts into training camp.

But when his condition did not improve, he had magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) taken of his back last week and the results are being examined by Brigham, a team doctor for the Panthers.

"We're expecting him to read my MRI in the next day or so," Odom said Monday. "We'll see what he thinks and what steps need to be taken.

"I'm still very optimistic, just not back as soon as I would've hoped. I would've liked to have been back (by now)."

In his current condition, Odom said he could not play if the Bucs had a regular-season game this week.

"I don't see how I could," Odom said. "Through my rehab, I've known what's just a little sore and what's actual pain. I'm pretty familiar with that at this point. It's probably no different."

With Paul Gruber unsigned, still recovering from a broken leg at a training facility in Colorado Springs and undecided whether he will play this season, the Bucs made re-signing Odom a priority in the off-season.

They planned to move Odom from right to left tackle, where he played at Florida but had only started one game in the NFL. In addition to the position switch, the Bucs believed Odom needed a full training camp to learn the new offense because he had not played in a game since September.

Now the Bucs may be forced to rely on sixth-year veteran backup Pete Pierson or seventh-year pro George Hegamin, who was signed in November after being released by the Eagles.

Pierson has just four NFL starts, two in playoff games last season after Gruber fractured his leg in the final regular-season game at Chicago.

The other possibility is DeMarcus Curry, a second-year pro who spent nearly the entire '99 season on the practice squad before being activated for the NFC Championship Game.

That makes left tackle perhaps the biggest house of cards for the Bucs.

"It was uncertain coming in, in the fact that we had a guy that we had confidence in and felt he could be the starter," offensive line coach Chris Foerster said.

"He still had to prove he could do it. You have to make decisions. Pay him and keep him. But it was still uncertain because he'd never done it. It was uncertain then, it's uncertain today. We can adjust."

Odom, who signed a three-year contract worth $10-million Feb. 29, said he became discouraged Thursday when the pain in his back did not subside and he was unable to participate in the Bucs' joint workouts with the Miami Dolphins in Orlando.

"The difference between Tuesday and Wednesday was the reason I was so optimistic, because I felt so much better Wednesday," Odom said. "It just leveled off.

"I'm still trying to keep active with some stretching and just trying to do everything as pain-free as possible. Obviously, I want to be out there. I don't feel behind yet. I haven't missed a ton yet, but it's adding up and I need to be out there. So I'm anxious to get out there as soon as possible."

The Bucs remain cautiously optimistic that Odom's condition is not serious, based mostly on the MRI results that show no structural damage.

"I wouldn't say that we're in a heightened level of concern yet," general manager Rich McKay said. "I think you always anticipate he's going to have an adjustment period, with some symptoms and the like. I think we're encouraged that structurally from all the tests, as we know them, there doesn't seem to be any problems.

"If he's three more weeks and not going at full speed, then yeah, it could be a problem from the standpoint of conditioning. He'll fall behind. It's not a good thing. If we go a couple more weeks it will set him back."

Odom will miss Friday's preseason opener against the Washington Redskins and maybe much more. It's the uncertainly about how long the Bucs could be without him that makes it hard on the coaching staff.

"It's one of those things where it would be nice if they told us he was going to be out two weeks or he was going to be out 10 days or four days," coach Tony Dungy said.

"That's been the toughest part. But right now, we've just got to assume that he's going to be back at some point and we're planning for him to be back. We haven't really become alarmed or thought there were any major problems yet."

While team officials are more concerned about Odom's back than a week ago, they feel fortunate the regular-season opener is Sept. 3.

"He hasn't played, he's changing positions, it is a new offense. You know, there's a lot of reasons why you'd want him out there," Dungy said.

"But he has played a lot of football for us, he's played a lot of winning games in the NFL. He's played left tackle for four years at Florida. So I don't think it's anything that he can't overcome once we get him out there."

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