By ROGER MILLS
© St. Petersburg Times,
published August 27, 2001
TAMPA -- Bucs quarterback Ryan Leaf needed a good performance Saturday night against the Patriots to assuage any doubts about his ability to play in the Bucs system.
In his first two preseason games Leaf was not particularly effective moving the team and at times did not seem on the same page as his receivers.
But just as talk about Joe Hamilton beating out Leaf began to snowball, the former No. 2 overall draft pick displayed some of the talent the Bucs were gambling on when they claimed him off waivers in the offseason.
"I thought all the quarterbacks played well," coach Tony Dungy said. "Obviously for Ryan, that was the best he played and we were anxious to see that."
Playing one series in the fourth quarter, Leaf made an impressive 25-yard completion to Todd Yoder to set up a first down at the Patriots' 19. He also found receiver Alex Willis deep in the left corner for a 23-yard gain on the same drive. He finished 3 for 5 for 49 yards.
"I guess anytime you're not doing as well as you like, to have that good game, it does help," Dungy said.
By design, Hamilton did not play against the Patriots but likely will get his share of snaps Friday in Atlanta, where he played for Georgia Tech.
"We may unleash Joe on the Atlanta crowd for a homecoming celebration, see if we could sell out the Georgia Dome," Dungy joked.
EXPECTED BACK: Pro Bowl fullback Mike Alstott and veteran punter Mark Royals are expected back in practice and are scheduled to play Friday.
Alstott (hamstring) and Royals (knee sprain) were casualties of the first week of camp. Neither has seen full-speed action since the first week of August.
"What we've done with Mike is try to get him some game type of feel," Dungy said. "Get him in the action this week, and if we do that he should be okay for next week. We would like to get him in there, whether it means carries, playing fullback and getting some blocks or catches. Just getting that live action I think is important."
The return of starting defensive end Marcus Jones, who is recovering from a right hamstring strain, is uncertain. Dungy said Jones should return to practice this week but may be held out against the Falcons.
CUT DAY: The mandatory deadline for the first series of cuts is Tuesday, but like most teams the Bucs anticipate making cuts today. There are 84 players and that must be trimmed to 65, excluding four exemptions for players who participated in NFL Europe.
"It is difficult," Dungy said. "You have the draft, you have people in for offseason programs and a lot of these guys you have for five months and they are working very hard. You know you can't keep everyone, it's still difficult when you have to let people go."
AT THE CENTER: It may have been preseason, but considering the team isn't realistically expecting center Jeff Christy to play in the season opener, the play of new starter Todd Washington is critical the next two weeks. Washington held his own Saturday against the Patriots.
"He played pretty well," Dungy said. "New England is a tough team to have your first start against because they give you a lot of different looks and the 3-4 (defense) is a little bit different. He held up pretty well and will be better this coming week."
THE COACH'S EYE: Dungy said backup defensive tackle Chartric Darby, who had two sacks against the Patriots, reminds him of Seattle tackle John Randle, who has made a career of tormenting quarterbacks.
"He's a smaller guy, but he's got a high motor and plays intense," Dungy said. "Quickness is definitely his game. He plays very hard. He practices hard and you just can't knock him out."
All Pro defensive tackle Warren Sapp has praised Darby, called Chuck by his teammates, for his hard work and has lobbied for a roster spot for the former practice-squad player.
"Let's just say that I like Chuck too," Dungy said. "It helps Chuck more (that I like him) than if Warren likes him. He's a hard worker and fits in with our defensive line tempowise, speed and attitude. He's been a guy that has caught everybody's eye since he's been here."
PRESEASON FINALE: 7:30 p.m. Friday at Atlanta, Ch. 44.
SEASON OPENER: 1 p.m. Sept. 9 at Dallas.