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Saying "when' no easy call

Can you go?

Those three words, spoken pleadingly before kickoff, will begin an internal debate for several injured Bucs players today.

Joe Jurevicius (torn ligament) will bend his right knee. John Lynch (damaged nerve) will rotate his left shoulder. John Howell (concussion) will test his recollection.

Then the tug-of-war begins.

The coach is paid to look out for the best interest of the team; the player must consider his own welfare.

Can you go? When it comes to a severe injury, the appropriate response should be "no way."

In those noisy pregame moments, a player has to block out the loud call of obligation, the shouts of personal desire and listen only to his body.

"I think that's why, ultimately, you've got to look out for yourself," Lynch said. "I think you always know your body the best. If you go back when they say you're ready, but you don't feel like you're ready, you most likely aren't."

Lynch and Jurevicius are doubtful for today's game against the Saints. Indications are that neither the safety nor the receiver will pull on a uniform.

"I think we're all in the same boat in that category," Jurevicius said. "Everybody has proven he can play with pain. It's a part of the NFL. But when it comes to an injury you can't fight through, it's time to shut it down and hope you can make enough improvement in practice next week to get on the field. It's not a matter of letting your team down. If you can't do it, you can't do it. If you go out there and can't play at a certain level, that would be letting them down."

Jon Gruden admits that like many NFL coaches he pressures the injured to play. But in the end, he says, it's up to trainer Todd Toriscelli.

"I've been known, like most coaches, to get mad at the trainer and yell at the trainer, "Get him out here. We need these guys!' " Gruden said. "Then you try and tell your players, don't go into that training room. There's rats living in there. It's a dangerous place."

Perhaps that's why Gruden's game plan Wednesday included plenty of plays for Jurevicius, who returned to practice for the first time since tearing the medial collateral ligament in his knee Sept. 14 against Carolina.

"If you start worrying about what coaches think and what everybody is thinking, you'll drive yourself crazy," Jurevicius said. "The most important thing is getting yourself healthy. Sitting in the meeting and seeing the game plan put in and seeing the certain plays you run all the time, it's tough because you know you're not going to get a chance to run them this time. It's a game we all love playing. It's my dream and I miss playing football on Sunday."

It's the same everywhere. Atlanta's Dan Reeves, who is watching his coaching career circling the drain with his team 1-6, suggested that it was time for quarterback Michael Vick to return.

Vick, who broke his fibula in preseason, was said to need 6-10 weeks to heal. This is the 11th week. The quarterback said he wouldn't be ready until Dec. 7.

Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb came back from a similar injury in eight weeks but said he was only 80 percent. Browns quarterback Kelly Holcomb made it back in four. Bucs guard Kerry Jenkins put them all to shame, never missing a game with a broken fibula. But Vick wasn't budging.

"I won't let anyone pressure me into doing anything," Vick told reporters Wednesday. "The decision will be based on me. Myself."

After a meeting with Reeves, Vick moved his return date up to Nov. 30.

"Of course, Michael Vick wants to come back," Lynch said. "He obviously doesn't feel right. In a perfect world, you look out for everyone's best interest. But a team has to win. And sometimes you lose sight of the fact that maybe the kid's not ready. It's ugly when it happens, but ultimately, he's got to do what's best for him."

Fullback Mike Alstott was leery of stepping onto the field with a herniated disc until he was assured by a specialist in Pittsburgh that he wasn't at greater risk of paralysis by playing.

"I saw a specialist and I got the opinions from the people who helped my confidence to get on the field," Alstott said. "This decision was mine, all mine. It's a situation where I had to find out either way."

Alstott was involved in a collision while blocking that left him without some feeling in his arms and legs for a few seconds. That was enough. He was placed on injured reserve and is scheduled for surgery Monday to fuse two vertebrae together.

Two weeks ago, cornerback Brian Kelly attempted to play with a torn pectoral muscle. Kelly said doctors told him that despite some loss of strength in his left arm, he could return to the lineup and possibly finish the season, depending on his threshold for pain.

But in the first half against the 49ers, Kelly extended his left arm and interfered with 49ers receiver Tai Streets. Although there was minimal contact, Kelly grabbed his left side, grimacing in pain. The next day, the Bucs placed Kelly on injured reserve.

Even when a player is cleared to return medically, it doesn't mean he is ready mentally.

Linebacker Shelton Quarles broke the ulna bone in his forearm and dislocated his shoulder a few days before the season opener. Although he hadn't played in six weeks, Quarles started against the 49ers.

"Confidently, I think that was the first time he had been in live, physical football since training camp," Gruden said. "The 49ers are a big and physical inside running team. I think confidence is a big thing in terms of coming back from an injury. I don't care what kind of injury you're talking about."

Cornerback Ronde Barber missed the entire week of practice with a sore hamstring before starting against the Cowboys. It didn't seem to matter. Barber took over the game, recording an interception, a forced fumble and eight tackles.

"It actually does surprise me because I'm one of those guys who feels you have to prepare," Barber said. "Back in college, it was a you-don't-practice, you-don't-play type of deal."

Last season, Barber played with a torn knee ligament and a broken hand. Neither injury was significant enough to force him to miss games.

"I tell everybody: (Playing injured) gives you an edge, man," Barber said. "You're not at your best, you've got to be on top of your game. You can't let the little stuff creep in or you're going to get beat. I'd rather play healthy, but I don't mind it."

Jenkins, who played last season with a broken fibula and fractured orbital bone, said the macho nature of football adds pressure to play injured.

"I'm sure everybody has (rushed it back)," Jenkins said. "That's part of being a football player. Everybody gets beat up, and they have to play through pain."

While that might be true, the best road to recovery is often caution, not valor. Just ask Alstott or Kelly.

"This ain't basketball. It ain't baseball," Falcons defensive tackle Ed Jasper told reporters last week. "As soon as you come back, you're going to get the mess knocked out of you."

_ Information from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution was used in this report.

TODAY

Bucs vs. Saints, 1, Raymond James Stadium, Tampa.

TV / RADIO: Ch. 13; WQYK-AM 1010, FM 99.5.

LINE: Bucs by 8

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