It had been a tough couple of days, Bucs head coach Jon Gruden admitted.
Mike Alstott was moved to injured reserve on Thursday, perhaps signaling the end of the fan favorite's 12-year career.
Alstott's move to IR was a shock. The 12th-year fullback was on the sidelines Friday night against New England, offering encouragement to his teammates. But he couldn't offer what Gruden needed the most — playing time.
For the next four weeks, Tampa Bay will set out to figure out life without Alstott. How will they account for his absence? And did Friday night's game leave us with hints about what Gruden might do to mask Alstott's departure?
"We are still working out which network of backs are going to be with us," Gruden said.
To that end, Gruden started Michael Pittman at fullback on Friday, in front of starting tailback Cadillac Williams. It's a nod to the infamous "rocket backfield" Gruden talked about two seasons ago, but never used.
Alstott's departure may open that door.
Pittman (6-foot, 228 pounds) appears big enough to act as a lead blocker occasionally. He's a better backfield blocker than Williams, certainly, and his presence on the field with Williams would add a dimension of uncertainty to the offense.
Gruden also said afterward that Earnest Graham (5-9, 225), a highly valued special teams performer and the Bucs' leading rusher in preseason the last two years, can also play fullback. His size, however, makes that assertion more than a bit curious.
Obviously, the most expedient solution would be to use B.J. Askew (6-3, 233) as the full-time lead blocker. Signed away from the New York Jets in March, Askew was insurance for exactly the type of development as Thursday's announcement on Alstott.
"B.J. Askew did some good things, picking up some blitzes and blocking at the point of attack, shortening out the second look," Gruden said.
Askew's performance on Friday can't be measured by his statistics because he had none. Askew did not carry the football, nor is that his history in the NFL. He has just 27 career carries. His reputation is as a blocker is a solid one, but he won't create offense the way Alstott did.
In a sense, that works to the Bucs' benefit, because it may allow them to keep four running backs coming out of training camp, all of which the Bucs value — Williams, Pittman, Graham and seventh-round pick Kenneth Darby.
Darby (5-10, 211) had a terrific preseason debut, rushing 15 times for 84 yards. Those numbers are tempered by the fact that Darby produced them against second- and third-team defenders. But, he also caught a pass for 13 yards, and his pass catching was considered an asset coming out of college.
Williams and Pittman are the unquestioned Nos. 1 and 2 backs. But judging from Graham's (7 carries for 35 yards) and Darby's performances on Friday, there appears to be room for four running backs on this roster. Pittman and Darby can each offer backs that can act as receivers out of the backfield. Graham can rush and play a myriad of roles on special teams. Williams is going to benefit by getting more carries with Alstott's departure, granted he stays healthy. Williams touched the ball only twice on Friday.
Oddly, Alstott's move to injured reserve has the potential to make the backfield more versatile — and more dangerous.
But, Gruden made it clear, the Bucs are still feeling their way through Alstott's absence, and one game certainly didn't offer clear indications, just hints, of what the backfield could become.
"We have competition, but we also have to overcome the loss of our leader and great player," Gruden said. "That's something we are going to continue to work through."
Matthew Postins covers the Buccaneers for BucsBlitz.com and the Charlotte Sun-Herald in Port Charlotte, Fla. He is a member of the Pro Football Writers Association and has won national awards for his Buccaneers coverage from the PFWA, the National Newspaper Association and the Associated Press Sports Editors.