TAMPA — The Bucs signed defensive lineman Al Woods off the Steelers' practice squad last week in a transaction that probably went unnoticed by even the most ardent NFL fans.
That apparently includes some who play for the Bucs.
"To be honest, if I had to pick out Al Woods in the locker room, it'd be hard for me to do that," Bucs center Jeff Faine said Thursday. "I don't know if I've even met him yet."
But Sunday at Atlanta, a mere four days after his arrival in Tampa, Woods lined up and played some critical snaps against the Falcons in a pivotal NFC South game.
The Bucs ultimately lost, but the anecdote of the unknown Woods being thrown into a pressure situation and, by all accounts, acquitting himself nicely, is one of many similar examples on this team.
The Bucs are the youngest club in the NFL, with an average age of 25 years, 281 days. But that youth isn't comprised merely of early round draft picks. This is a team full of late-round draft picks, undrafted prospects and castoffs who not only are playing, but they're playing essential roles on a winning team.
The emphasis there should be on "winning" because teams in this position rarely do.
The group runs the gamut. It includes Ted Larsen, a sixth-round pick from North Carolina State who has started the past three games after joining the Bucs in September. There's Cody Grimm, a seventh-round pick who was bound for special-teams duty until Tanard Jackson's yearlong suspension made him the starting free safety.
There's fullback Erik Lorig, another seventh-rounder who was a defensive end coming out of Stanford and changed positions just weeks ago. He has started two games. Receiver Preston Parker was undrafted out of Division I-AA North Alabama, but coaches didn't hesitate to dial up a play designed specifically for him with Sunday's game on the line.
Running back LeGarrette Blount wound up here after his release by the Titans but leads the Bucs in rushing despite not having full command of the offense.
Even the players admit what they're doing is unlikely. Were he watching from afar, Larsen said he, too, would be surprised this team is winning.
"Every win we got, you'd probably be like, 'Wow!' " he said. "But it doesn't feel like that around here."
Such players are as big a reason the Bucs are 5-3 as any of the team's stars. They are primarily why the recent rash of injuries hasn't been nearly as painful as one might expect.
"As the season goes along, you're going to have injuries and guys are going to have to step up," starting right guard Davin Joseph said. "We've been able to find quality guys to step up. And we're not just talking about just bodies. … We're finding out a lot of guys on this team who either made it through training camp or that we picked up from other places have been able to impact our team one way or another."
"I think it's our no-excuse mentality," said Lorig, who performed so well the team cut backup fullback Chris Pressley. Lorig has substituted for Earnest Graham during his recent hamstring injury.
"Either you're going to do it or you're not going to do it. That's the kind of players they're finding around here, and it's a mentality they come here with."
That mentality, Faine said, is a product of a coach who has found NFL success despite being an underdog himself as the youngest coach in the league. Perhaps that's why Raheem Morris preaches incessantly about the value of relishing precious opportunities.
He and general manager Mark Dominik have been successful in identifying young players who understand the value of the chance they're getting with each snap.
"They really make an emphasis about that," Lorig said. "They tell you, 'Look, we're giving you a real opportunity. You have to make the best of it.' … If you make the most of that opportunity, they'll keep you around."
When the Bucs cleaned house after Morris and Dominik ascended to their respective positions last year, one-time backups were promoted to more prominent roles. That left backup roles to be filled by even less experienced players.
"But now you're looking at these guys and saying, 'Hey, these guys aren't half bad. Let's go play,' " Morris said. "These guys don't know any better."
Finally, for some perspective on how teams this young generally fare, consider that Sunday's opponents, the Panthers, are the NFL's second-youngest team. While the Bucs are talking playoffs entering the second half of the season, the Panthers are 1-7.
Stephen F. Holder can be reached at [email protected]