The Bucs defense, suffering a rash of injuries four days before its wild-card playoff game at Philadelphia, got a cautious but encouraging boost at Wednesday's practice with the return of linebacker Derrick Brooks.
Brooks, nursing a sprained right shoulder, did not participate in contact drills but worked out in pads and shorts. He remained optimistic about his chance of playing Sunday.
"It's better than (Tuesday)," said Brooks, who has not missed a game in his six-year NFL career. "We just have to take gradual improvement all week long and be ready to go on Sunday.
"Not playing is not an option."
Coach Tony Dungy was encouraged to see the Pro Bowl player back. He said Brooks' game status was hard to determine.
"It depends on how he gets hit, and hopefully, he'll be fine and be able to make it through. We don't know at this point," Dungy said.
Meanwhile, linebacker Jamie Duncan (knee) and defensive linemen Steve White (hip pointer) and Marcus Jones (foot sprain) did not practice and are listed as probable.
Linebacker Jeff Gooch missed practice with an abdominal strain, and he was listed as questionable.
"We thought he was going to be fine, but it hasn't healed as we had hoped," Dungy said. "They're all injuries that you don't know. All the guys could be fine, or the first time they move a certain way, they could all be out."
With the linebackers depleted, the Bucs got a well-timed return from Al Singleton, out since spraining his left knee in a win against Dallas on Dec. 3.
"It feels good to be back out here, and I feel confident," Singleton said.
Singleton, who wore a protective brace, missed even watching practices while rehabilitating and working out, and he didn't travel with the team to Miami this month.
"If you're not practicing, you're not going to get away from the weight room," he said.
The rest of the Bucs on Wednesday's injured list were listed as probable: tackle Pete Pierson (lower back), guard Todd Washington (left hamstring), defensive back Floyd Young (right shoulder) and quarterback Shaun King (groin).
KING INJURED: King reaggravated a right groin injury. He was held to limited work in practice as a precaution.
This is not the first time King has entered a game with concerns about his health. Against Buffalo on Nov. 26, King was bothered by that groin injury and a lower back strain. In a 31-17 win he was 10-for-18 for 106 yards, no touchdowns and no interceptions.
MONEY TIME: For making the playoffs and playing in the wild-card game, each player gets a bonus check for $12,500 if the Bucs lose and $16,000 if they win. A win in the division playoff nets $16,000; a conference championship victory pulls in $34,500.
A Super Bowl championship earns each player $58,000.
WHO'S YOUR MVP: Rams running back Marshall Faulk was named the league MVP. Dungy said if he had had a vote, he would have given it to Faulk or Minnesota receiver Randy Moss.
"I think Randy dictates a lot of things just by being on the field as well, but Marshall, with the production, the touchdowns, what he does, I don't think you can argue with that," he said.
Dungy said those were his first two choices because he faced them this year.
"We haven't played against Eagles quarterback DonovanMcNabb, but I've seen those two guys up close and personal," he said.
GOING HOME: Bucs offensive lineman George Hegamin is a Philadelphia native who started his NFL career with the Eagles. He also was one of coach Andy Reid's first cuts last year, but he said he harbors no grudge. Asked if he left Philadelphia on bad terms, he smiled.
"I feel I left there on Andy Reid's terms," Hegamin said. "It's the business. What can you say? He did what he felt was best for his team, and obviously, it was best for his team."
The turf at Veterans Stadium is among the most feared surfaces in the league, but Hegamin said the Bucs shouldn't be too concerned.
"It's hard and slick, but as long as guys wear the right kind of shoes, it won't be too much of a problem," he said. "I don't think the weather or the turf is going to affect who wins or loses the game. This is the playoffs. Whether you're playing on grass or turf, on bottle caps or glass, you're going to be playing to win."
Hegamin's stint in Philadelphia briefly overlapped that of McNabb, and Hegamin said he was on the McNabb bandwagon long before most people.
"I want everybody to know I was one of the first people to say it: The guy is tremendous," Hegamin said. "I think the first time I really saw him execute his skills was one day in practice when he was falling down and still completed a pass."
TOUGH ROAD AHEAD: The Bucs' 2001 opponents give them the second-toughest strength of schedule in the NFL, behind the Vikings. Tampa's 16 opponents combined for a 142-114 record. Minnesota's opponents had 147 wins. Denver and Washington share the easiest schedule, with opponents combining for a 118-138.
The Bucs have 12 games against teams that finished with winning records. Chicago, Dallas and Cincinnati finished at or below .500.
EVERYBODY'S DEFENSIVE: Asked if the Bucs have the best defense the Eagles will see this season, McNabb said, "I think the best defense we've faced is our own defense. This is a defense that really doesn't do too much as far as blitzes are concerned, recognizing and seeing it coming."
The Bucs have the ninth-ranked defense in the NFL. The Eagles tied the Jets for 10th.
The Bucs' Warren Sapp seemed surprised and a bit offended by McNabb's comments.
"Donovan McNabb said that," Sapp said incredulously during a conference call with Philadelphia reporters. "It's a beautiful country we have."
Eagles defensive end Hugh Douglas tried to deflect any controversy. "The only reason Donovan said that is because he faces us every day in practice and we know what he's going to do," Douglas said.
_ GREG AUMAN, ROGER MILLS,
1. Minnesota 147-109
2. Tampa Bay 142-114
3. Indianapolis 138-118
4. Green Bay 136-120
5. Chicago 135-121
6. Miami 133-123
6. N.Y. Jets 133-123
8. Pittsburgh 132-124
8. Tennessee 132-124
10. St. Louis 131-125
1. Denver 118-138
1. Washington 118-138
3. Philadelphia 119-137
3. San Diego 119-137
5. Buffalo 120-136
6. Atlanta 122-134
7. Detroit 123-133
7. Kansas City 123-133
8. Carolina 124-132
9. Oakland 124-132
10. Cleveland 125-131