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As the mounting injuries attest, these Bucs aren’t getting any younger

Are guys like Rob Gronkowski and Jason Pierre-Paul on their last 30-something legs?
Bucs tight end Rob Gronkowski has played six snaps (all at New Orleans) since fracturing ribs in a Week Three loss to the Rams.
Bucs tight end Rob Gronkowski has played six snaps (all at New Orleans) since fracturing ribs in a Week Three loss to the Rams. [ JAE C. HONG | AP ]
Published Nov. 10, 2021|Updated Nov. 10, 2021

TAMPA — These days, their swagger is accompanied by a mild limp. The quest to repeat has been pre-empted by rehab. Some are even publicly bemoaning their bodily pain, a telltale sign of aging.

Eight games into this uber-hyped sequel, the reigning Super Bowl champs are starting to creak.

“Injuries are part of the game,” Bucs veteran tailback Giovani Bernard said. “You come into the league healthy after a good offseason, and then the first day of camp something happens, whatever it may be. Put on those pads, things can happen.”

Lately, they’ve happened in succession to guys approaching the geriatric stage in NFL years. Tight end Rob Gronkowski, 32, experienced back spasms at New Orleans in his first game back since fracturing ribs and reportedly puncturing a lung in Week Three. Receiver Antonio Brown, 33, has a tweaked left ankle and, like Gronkowski, also isn’t practicing.

All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman, 33, already strained a hamstring when he tried playing three games in 12 days without the benefit of a preseason or training camp. And 32-year-old edge rusher Jason Pierre-Paul’s torn rotator cuff essentially limits him to mental reps on the days he appears at practice.

“I’m barely getting any sleep with this shoulder injury,” Pierre-Paul said Tuesday morning via Twitter. “I’ve had my share of injuries, but this one is by far the worst of them all.”

By re-signing Brown and Gronkowski (among others) to new one-year deals in the offseason, and bringing in Sherman to help salvage a decimated secondary, the Bucs — seeking to become the first repeat Super Bowl champs in almost two decades — made it clear they were going for broke in that quest.

But are they breaking in the process? And how concerned are they about the aging stars’ injuries lingering?

“We’ve got a long way to go,” coach Bruce Arians said Wednesday. “If they linger three more weeks, we’ve got five more (regular season) games with them, or six. It’s a long way yet, so I’m not that concerned.”

Yet one look at the current injury report makes one realize the number of elder statesmen on whom the Bucs are counting in their bid to repeat. Defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh will turn 35 before the regular season ends. Inside linebacker Lavonte David, 31, was fortunate — this time — to miss only two games with a high-ankle sprain.

And did we mention the starting quarterback is 44?

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But perhaps the Bucs were never delusional enough to count on each of their prominent veterans pushing through all 17 games. As a stopgap of sorts, they’ve added 35-year-old journeyman tight end Darren Fells and former Bucs receiver Breshad Perriman to the practice squad.

Fells spent three seasons (2014-16) with Arians in Arizona. Perriman played for Arians’ first Tampa Bay team in 2019. If Gronkowski and Brown remain sidelined for a spell (neither practiced Wednesday), both newcomers could step in right away.

“They’ve been in other systems for a while, but the verbiage isn’t totally foreign to them,” Arians said.

“They can come in, they can pick it up quick. We had Darren for a few years in Arizona, and obviously (Perriman). So yeah, that’s a huge advantage to them, and when we see guys that we know and we know what they are, we can already plug them in.”

But that’s only a Band-Aid fix, a Dixie Cup-sized slurp of water in a marathon. What if the veterans take longer to heal? What if other veterans join them on the shelf?

At that point, Bucs fans can only hope the 2020 blueprint brandishes itself. Defensive tackle (and matchup nightmare) Vita Vea fractured his ankle in Week Five last season but returned in time to disperse havoc in the NFC title game and Super Bowl.

Imagine the Bucs sneaking their way into the playoffs, where they’re joined by Gronk and Brown, both fully rehabbed and reinvigorated. Now imagine Sherman polishing his game to a near-Pro Bowl level after two months of activity. Imagine that 44-year-old passer staying prolific.

Suddenly, the Bucs are a new team — or a lot like the old one.

“Last year was Gronk’s first time ever when he played every game,” Arians said.

“That’s why you play a roster, and that’s why you make the moves we made now, to ensure hopefully more than nine games — more like 12 — and that we have that depth to fill pieces in.”

Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls

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