Garcia returns to practice on limited basis, could play

Just two days after suggesting his bruised back was still so sore that he could barely bend over and could not throw a football, Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jeff Garcia returned to practice on a limited basis Friday, providing the team some hope that he might be able to play in Sunday's game at New Orleans.

"I feel a lot better than I thought I would," Garcia told local reporters after practice.

Because reporters cannot watch the "team" segments of practice, it remains unclear exactly how much Garcia participated in the workout. But the mere fact he was on the field was a sign of progress after several days of treatment.

Garcia, 37, has started all 11 games for the first-place Bucs this season. He was injured on the first play of last Sunday's victory over the Washington Redskins. Garcia sat out most of the game and returned briefly in the fourth quarter but was ineffective.

Sunday's game is crucial because of its implications in the NFC South. The Bucs, at 7-4, lead the Saints by two games. A Tampa Bay victory would all but secure the division title, while a loss would leave the Bucs with just a one-game advantage over New Orleans heading into the final four games of the year.

Coach Jon Gruden stopped short of saying Garcia would play but acknowledged that he was encouraged by Friday's developments.

"He's not 100 percent right now but he's closing in on being well enough to play," Gruden said. "It's a matter of when he's ready to go out and go, and today was a step in that direction. He's made great improvement and maybe in another 48 hours he'll make more great improvement and be ready to go. We're optimistic but we've prepared ourselves to go in another direction if we have to."

That "other direction," if Garcia can't play, is expected to be fourth-year veteran Luke McCown, who has only four career starts, none since 2004. McCown has split time with Bruce Gradkowski, who relieved Garcia after the injury last week, but Gruden declined to say which of the two would start.

Gradkowski struggled, however, last week, completing just 9-of-19 passes for 106 yards. McCown, who has been the team's No. 3 quarterback all season, has apparently gotten more work with the first team this week.

A three-time Pro Bowl player, who is with his fifth different franchise in five seasons but whose career has been rejuvenated in 2007, Garcia has completed 182-of-282 passes for 2,135 yards, with 11 touchdown passes and only three interceptions.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.