Gessner's signing a symptom of injury woes

Chas Gessner's signing is only the latest attempt by Tampa Bay to shore up its flagging depth, thanks to 12 season-ending injuries and another half-dozen players hobbled by injuries. The byproduct is a roster that's starting to look more like training camp and a starting lineup that looks like the third quarter of a preseason game.

Chas Gessner walked into an empty locker room Wednesday and engaged in what's become a weekly tradition for the local media - meeting the new guy.

Gessner has spent just one NFL game on an active roster - for New England in 2003. He's spent most of the past five years scraping out a living on the NFL periphery with practice squads and training camp invites.

But on Wednesday he received plenty of attention. Why? Because the Buccaneers are so buried with injuries that they had to sign a player they've cut each of the past two preseasons to shore up their wide receiver depth.

Gessner was cut on Aug. 30 and Tampa Bay's locker room looks much different than when he left.

"It's a ferris wheel," Gessner said. "People come in and people come out."

Only in Tampa Bay the ferris wheel is out of control.

Tampa Bay placed cornerback Torrie Cox on injured reserve on Tuesday, making him the 12th player currently on IR. Only the Houston Texans can match the Bucs in that department.

That doesn't include the six players hobbled by injuries and may not play on Sunday against Arizona. That includes usual starters like cornerback Brian Kelly, defensive end Greg Spires, defensive end Patrick Chukwurah and running back Michael Pittman.

In all, seven players at the top of the Bucs' opening day depth chart have either missed time due to injury or are out for the season.

That's why Bucs head coach Jon Gruden can't wait for the bye week after Tampa Bay's home contest against Arizona on Sunday.

"There's blood in the water, I said it a couple of weeks ago, in the NFC South," Gruden said. "Hopefully we can get some guys back and be a factor down the stretch."

Gessner automatically becomes the fourth wide receiver for Sunday's game, after Joey Galloway, Ike Hilliard and Maurice Stovall - unless Michael Clayton is finally healthy enough to play after spraining his ankle against Detroit two weeks ago. Gessner's elevation into the receiving rotation isn't the first time the Bucs have resorted to Plan B (or C or even D) this season:

-- Donald Penn, a left tackle with no NFL experience, made his debut against Indianapolis on Oct. 7 after Luke Petitgout's season-ending knee injury;

-- Carnell Williams' season-ending patellar tendon injury on Sept. 30 gave way to Pittman, who yielded his spot to Earnest Graham the following week when he hurt his ankle against Indy. It also forced the Buccaneers to trade two draft picks to acquire Michael Bennett from Kansas City. Pittman may be back from his high ankle sprain after the bye week;

-- Right defensive end Patrick Chukwurah's injury woes this season - including an ankle injury and shoulder injury - gave way to Greg Spires as the starter at that position. Spires may be out on Sunday, which would allow either first-round pick Gaines Adams or Arena Football League refugee Greg White to make their first NFL start;

-- Gessner is taking Chad Lucas' spot on the roster. Lucas was signed last week from the Buccaneers' practice squad to take Mark Jones' spot on the roster. Jones was the Bucs' kickoff and punt returner, but his own patellar tendon injury two weeks ago ended his season. Cox took over his kick return duties, but hurt his knee last week. The Bucs are still unsure who their kickoff returner will be on Sunday. They've already used Jones, Michael Pittman, Earnest Graham and Cox on kickoffs this season.

"I've never gone five-deep at that position by Week Eight of the season," Gruden said. "It will be...we'll have somebody back there.

-- And tight end Alex Smith's ankle injury against Detroit gave way to Anthony Becht, who now starts at tight end - but hasn't caught a pass due to a minor back issue, said Gruden. Jerramy Stevens has taken that role. The Bucs signed Keith Heinrich, another training camp participant cut during preseason, and he played a few downs last week, including one where he set up in the slot.

The ferris wheel is part of the reason the Bucs have lost three of their last four games. Fielding a steady lineup from week to week has led to inconsistency on both sides of the ball.

And led the Bucs to use players like Gessner, Heinrich and Graham, who before this season had no tangible NFL track record at their positions.

For all the injury woes, the Bucs have managed to stay in the NFC hunt. They're only a half-game back of Carolina in the South - and the Panthers have their own injury problems. And, while four NFC teams have two or fewer losses, most NFL pundits believe the Dallas Cowboys (6-1) are the only truly dominant team in the conference.

That has the Buccaneers hopeful that their position in the standings can improve as their injury situation improves.

"We all know we have a good team. We all know we have a lot of injuries. We have to be realistic about it," Bucs defensive end Kevin Carter said. "But the realistic approach is only going to help you halfway in winning games. You have to have belief and want-to and will power, you have to have character and this team has that. So that's what we're going to do. We're going to put our best foot forward and get through it.

"Time's going to pass either way. You're either going to get better or you're going to get worse."

Want to read more of our interview with Chas Gessner? Click here for our exclusive "Press Pass" feature on Gessner.

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Matthew Postins an award-winning writer and member of the Pro Football Writers Association, covers the Buccaneers for and the Charlotte (Fla.) Sun-Herald.

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