Observation Deck: Injuries at critical mass

When Mark Jones goes on injured reserve, he'll be the 14th Buccaneer to have his season ended by injury. Just how far are the Buccaneers stretched now, and can their roster take any more major injuries? I explore the issues and find the situation has reached a critical point.

Once Tampa Bay places return man Mark Jones on injured reserve later this week, he'll represent the 11th Buccaneer currently on IR. It will also mark the 14th time the Bucs have used the IR this season.

With the Bucs standing at 4-3 and facing Jacksonville this week — one of the league's most physical teams — one must ask when the rubber band is going to snap.

Perhaps it already has, if history is a guide.

Since 2001 — that's as far back as the Buccaneers keep season-ending rosters on their Web site — the Bucs have finished three different seasons with 10 players on injured reserve. Those came in 2003, 2004 and 2006. In those seasons the Buccaneers finished with seven, five and four wins, respectively.

You can't just take injured reserve into consideration, either. You must also account for FB Michael Pittman, CB Brian Kelly, DE Patrick Chukwurah, TE Alex Smith and WR Michael Clayton, all of whom are hurt right now, but not seriously enough to force them to end their seasons.

Injuries are a factor in pro football because it's not a contact sport — it's a collision sport. But the Bucs have had more than their fair share this season.

"It's frustrating," Bucs head coach Jon Gruden said. "It's not baseball. You can't make a trade and just put a guy in your lineup and say, ‘Hey, go play right field and hit fourth.' No disrespect to baseball, but you must know the formations, the snap count, the audible system, the two-minute package, all of the things you learned in training camp, OTAs and things of that nature."

So the Bucs will have more to overcome on Sunday. But when is "more" too much?

Consider the opening-day roster. Since the start of the season the Bucs have lost four players to season-ending injuries — and three of them are starters. Jones will make it five. Plus at least three guys moved to IR before the season — WR Paris Warren, LB Antoine Cash and FB Mike Alstott — would have been factors this season.

In all, the Bucs have lost 55 games combined from those players on IR. And, as I said, at least six of them would be playing if they were healthy. That's a lot to absorb.

Now look at the five that are hurt but playing. Between Pittman, Kelly, Chukwurah, Smith and Clayton they've missed a combined 11 games (Clayton hasn't missed any time, but he likely will). Pittman moved into the starting lineup when RB Carnell Williams went down. Kelly is supposed to be starting opposite Ronde Barber. Chukwurah is supposed to be starting at right end. Smith is supposed to be starting at tight end.

The Buccaneers have lost 18 games so far from players that started on opening day.

"You know when you lose three running backs, and now three receivers and a left tackle and a tight end, a corner(back) and a defensive end, and a guy like Sabby Piscitelli who's been out for some time, they do add up," Gruden said.

So when is the breaking point? I reasoned last week that it might have been after Smith was hurt, but he appears to be on the road to being back soon. Plus, there's depth at that position.

The breaking point could be now, as strange as it sounds. Losing Jones means the Bucs must either sign a new returner — Chad Owens would be a likely candidate — or distribute the duties to players like Torrie Cox, Ike Hilliard, Phillip Buchanon and Joey Galloway. Exposing Hilliard, Buchanon and Galloway to injury isn't smart, but it also may be impossible to avoid.

Losing Clayton, while not a big blow, leaves the Bucs with three wide receivers. So they'll either have to promote one of the three wide receivers they have on the practice squad or sign a veteran free-agent like Doug Gabriel, who worked out for the Bucs last week.

Considering that the Bucs have had losing seasons when they've finished with at least 10 players on IR, it's almost unfathomable to believe they could survive one more serious injury to, say, Earnest Graham or Kevin Carter or, heaven forbid, Jeff Garcia. They've been a resilient bunch so far. But with a tough game looming against Jacksonville, I see this rubber band being stretched about as far as it can.

And one more major injury will make it snap.

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. He is also a contributor to the Scot Brantley Show from 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WHBO 1470-AM in Tampa-Clearwater.

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