TAMPA — They broke briskly from the starting line, then broke down. Barely a mile into this 18-week marathon, the Bucs are limping, lumbering, laboring.
Stands to reason when you’re the NFL equivalent of Aerosmith: a spry spectacle with tons of tread, but still capable of delivering a command performance.
“We’ve been hit with injuries left and right,” 32-year-old inside linebacker Lavonte David said. “Last year we were hit hard with injuries, and we were able to overcome it.”
Yet at some point, recovery periods extend and returns diminish, even for the elite players. In their relentless quest for a second Super Bowl in three seasons, the Bucs have surrounded 45-year-old Tom Brady with grizzled talent instead of green potential; guys Brady doesn’t have to break in but are more likely to break down.
Now, a glaring question looms: Can such a seasoned roster make it through an entire season?
“I wouldn’t say all veterans are hurt,” head coach Todd Bowles said earlier this week. “There are some young guys that are hurt, too.”
True. But a week before October’s arrival, the NFL’s oldest roster (average age: 27.15) also bears one of its oldest injury lists. Pro Bowl defensive lineman Akiem Hicks, 32, has a plantar fascia tear; and Canton-bound receiver Julio Jones, 33, hasn’t practiced due to a hurt knee.
Two veteran backups — 31-year-old tackle Josh Wells and 30-year-old Giovani Bernard — were placed on injured reserve earlier this week. Leonard Fournette, technically 27 but closer to 37 in workhorse years, is nursing a tweaked hamstring after collecting the fourth-most touches (49) of any NFL running back to this point.
Left tackle Donovan Smith, nine months shy of his 30th birthday, may try to grimace his way through Sunday’s game against the Packers with a hyperextended elbow. And the guy who skewers the average-age quotient more than any other — Brady — has a banged-up ring finger on his throwing hand.
Meantime, the Bucs have brought in 33-year-old receiver Cole Beasley as a reinforcement, even as the fan base clamors for 33-year-old Rob Gronkowski to emerge from his second retirement.
“It’s really part of the game, regardless of how you look at it,” offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich said.
“We’ve just got to get ready to roll, that’s really how I see it. I don’t put too much thought in that — young, old, whatever. The way I view it, we just want to go out and have the next opportunity to go out there and try to play well.”
Say this about Leftwich: The old quarterback still knows how to sidestep. Others are equally dismissive about the team’s median age factoring into the early injury outbreak, suggesting other dynamics at play that could hinder rookies and retreads alike.
“I don’t think it’s about age,” Bowles said. “Some of them are just freak injuries, and some of them are at the start of the season. When you’re not as physical in training camp with the (limited) number of padded practices (16 in the preseason) and you don’t play in a bunch of preseason games, these first three or four games are really your full-time preseason games.
“When you only play a quarter, or two series or anything like that (in the preseason), you don’t get the bumps and bruises that you get when you play four quarters on a week-to-week basis.”
Lending merit to Bowles’ observation: The Bucs were among six teams with at least 10 players either limited or non-participants at Wednesday’s practice, according to official NFL injury reports. Four others had at least nine.
Aggravating matters for Tampa Bay is the fact its first two games — both on the road — have been played on artificial surfaces.
“That’s a real thing, for sure,” cornerback Carlton Davis said. “You go through camp and you’re not playing 80 plays during a preseason game, and then you come back and you’re on turf for 80 plays. And then you go back to another turf game (for) 80 plays and you’re still getting into the season, your body is still getting adjusted it.
“Obviously, throughout the season you get adjusted and your body is ready for it. But starting off, it can be really brutal on the body.”
But a brutal truth remains: Older players take longer to acclimate, and recover, raising questions of whether Brady and his aging ensemble can make it to January.
Maybe — just maybe — it’s all a moot point, considering the NFL’s oldest roster also is one of its deepest.
Seminole High alumnus Brandon Walton, 24, filled in admirably at left tackle last week in New Orleans when both Smith and Wells were sidelined; and 29-year-old journeyman receiver Breshad Perriman had the go-ahead touchdown catch against the Saints.
So far, backup center Robert Hainsey, 24, has proven a highly serviceable replacement for 31-year-old Pro Bowler Ryan Jensen.
“Thankfully, (the injuries) happened early. But at the same time you don’t want it to happen,” David said. “But hopefully guys that are stepping in will buy time for other guys to come back and get healthy and be able to get this going.”
Contact Joey Knight at email@example.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls
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