TAMPA — Talented and troubled guard Arron Sears rejoined the Bucs on Wednesday, but his return to the playing field might not occur until next season.
Sears has gained "significant weight," and general manager Mark Dominik called the chance of the third-year pro contributing in 2009 "wishful thinking."
A private matter forced Sears to leave the team in April. He will spend this week working exclusively with Bucs strength and conditioning coach Kurtis Shultz.
During that time, Sears will not attend meetings with teammates or be made available to the media, according to Dominik.
The Bucs have a two-week exemption for Sears before they have to decide whether to activate him to the 53-man roster or place him on another reserve list.
"I'd say in my mind it would be wishful thinking to think he could contribute this year," Dominik said. "I mean, because he does have to get himself in really good football shape, No. 1. He has to get himself comfortable in a playbook he really doesn't know, No. 2, and that is a lot to ask over the last seven weeks of the regular season. It is encouraging that he is here today."
Sears, 25, left in April for his home in Russellville, Ala., after coaches and teammates noticed he had become withdrawn, at one point choosing to write down responses to questions.
Dominik met with Sears in Tampa several weeks ago and last week invited him to attend a conditioning workout.
"I have to give him a lot of credit. He's been very good about staying in contact with me," Dominik said. "I give (agent) Sean Kiernan a lot of credit, too. It's been a difficult process. He spent a lot of time working through this. Over the last couple of weeks it's kind of come to this date where we were comfortable doing that. By league rule, we were allowed to bring him in and work him out. We did that. We gave him a quick workout and a physical test just to see how he did. I had a conversation with him, and he lived up to everything we asked him to do. When he came back and asked for permission to return, we were happy to have him back."
When asked how Sears' conditioning looked, Dominik said: "Not great. The guy hasn't played organized football since early April, so he needs to work on getting himself in physical conditioning. …
" This week I'd like to let him work on getting reacquainted with the team."
Dominik maintained his stance of not elaborating on the nature of Sears' "private matter."
"At some point I'll let Arron talk about that when he's more comfortable talking about that," Dominik said.
Bucs players appeared encouraged and excited to see Sears, and many had remained in contact with him during the absence.
A third-round pick from Tennessee in 2007, Sears was emerging as a future Pro Bowl talent before leaving the team, having started 31 regular-season games in two seasons. His absence forced the Bucs to move second-year pro Jeremy Zuttah to left guard.
An injury to Faine meant Zuttah was not available to move to center and the Bucs were forced to re-sign Sean Mahan.
"He didn't let us down," tackle Donald Penn said of Sears. "That thought never crossed my mind at all. I knew what was going on with him, and I'm happy he's back. … I think he is determined to turn everything around and show everybody the player he can become. He's a great person on and off the field. I know his mentality, and it's the same mentality that everybody has on this offensive line."
Said center Jeff Faine: "It is good that he is back. It is good to see him. That's the biggest thing. Then we'll just see how it goes."
But teammates didn't sugarcoat the kind of work Sears has ahead of him.
"I don't think any athlete can leave the game for half a year and come back and be where they want or need to be," Penn said. "It's going to take time."