Gruden walks line with vets, playing time

The Bucs have clinched their playoff berth and know who their first-round opponent is. So, what do they with a meaningless regular season game? That's the debate raging through One Buc Place this week.

TAMPA — Jon Gruden wants to make it perfectly clear that he's not resting anyone this weekend against Carolina.

"They're working out here," Gruden said on Wednesday. "They might not play as much on Sunday, but they're not resting. We don't have bunk beds in there (the locker room). They're working."

They are working, but the nature of Tampa Bays already-settled playoff picture leads to natural questions about playing time and scouting their Wild Card playoff opponent, the New York Giants.

How long will the veterans play? Will they play at all? Will the Buccaneers (9-6) begin preparing for the Giants now instead of next week?

They are all valid questions.

But Gruden's answers aren't exactly crystal clear.

On Jeff Garcia, all Gruden would say is that the starting quarterback is working in practice and that a determination would come later in the week.

He told the media that the Carolina game was the "big picture," and that anyone could accuse him of not trying to win last week's game against San Francisco if they wanted to.

"We tried to win," Gruden said. "We did everything we could to win. We're going to try and win on Sunday. I think that's hogwash."

But common sense dictates that Gruden rest his key veterans, many of which, frankly are beat up from a difficult, physical season.

But how much to rest them? That's an interesting question.

Backup linebacker Jeremiah Trotter experienced this phenomenon in Philadelphia. Trotter said he valued the rest that clinching a playoff berth, or even a division title, before Week 17 afforded him.

"To be able to rest a week, it's a long season," Trotter said. "You take a pounding. When you have the opportunity (it's great)."

Some pundits make the point that carrying momentum into the postseason is key and that a loss in Week 17 — in spite of the good intentions of resting key players — can do a team more harm than good.

Trotter disagreed, saying that concept was "really exaggerated."

Some younger players didn't disagree with Trotter, but admitted that winning on Sunday and carrying that into the playoffs was important to them.

"We want to finish our division with authority," Bucs guard Davin Joseph said. "We want to go into the playoffs with momentum and on a good foot."

Joseph expressed a desire to play the entire game. But given Joseph's value to the offensive line, that runs counter to the concept of resting key players. Gruden make the point last week that it works differently for positions like offensive line.

"You can only dress seven offensive linemen, so who do you rest?" Gruden said.

No one seems worried about focus, either.

"I think everybody in here wants to win games," quarterback Luke McCown said. "We're not looking ahead to who we're playing in the playoffs, we're not looking ahead to next week."

Yet, quite a bit of this week's preparation can be seen as preparation for next week. The Bucs chose to sit veteran fullback B.J. Askew last week, and may choose to do so again on Sunday to give him more time to recover from an injured ankle. Several other Bucs are on the injury report with maladies that they've struggled with all season.

An extra week of rest may make them better able to handle the Giants, even at the expense of a win on Sunday.

It's not an easy tightrope and Carolina head coach John Fox knows it. His Panthers have reached the playoffs three times under his care, but have never had the benefit of a first-round bye. They have, however wrapped up playoff berths early and faced the same decisions Gruden does this week.

"It's hard," Fox said. "It's like how many days do you go in pads at camp. There's never a right answer. Each week these things take on a different personality. Jon knows his team and knows which guys may need rest. The big test is the weekend after this weekend in the playoffs and it's a fine line you walk. I think you play your guys a little bit like he did against San Francisco and then get them out."

Gruden will probably never reveal his plans for the Panthers, but it's likely that's exactly what he'll do. He treated last week's game as if it was a normal game during the week, but afterward admitted he had no intention of playing people like Garcia, Earnest Graham and Joey Galloway more than a half.

In fact, Maurice Stovall's season-ending injury may have hastened some veterans' departures from the game.

"You know when you start seeing your players carried off, you have emotions that go through you," Gruden said.

The 2007 season won't be remember for what happens on Sunday. It will be remembered for what happens in January. If the difference between winning a playoff game and losing a playoff game is resting a few players this week, shouldn't Gruden do so?

Maybe, but some players see a bigger picture.

"It's not a week you can take off from a mental standpoint," Garcia said. "It's important that we stay on top of everything that we're doing and build on what we're looking forward to do in the first round of the playoffs."

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Matthew Postins covers the Buccaneers for Bucsblitz.com and the Charlotte (Fla.) Sun-Herald. He is a member of the Pro Football Writers Association, and his coverage of the Buccaneers has won numerous state and national awards.


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