Gruden expects QB Garcia to start against Falcons

TAMPA, Fla. -- For the first time in three weeks, there's
definitive word on Jeff Garcia's sore back.

The Tampa Bay quarterback is expected to return to the lineup
this week after missing two games and most of a third with a lower
back bruise that has kept opposing teams guessing about his

Coach Jon Gruden said Monday that despite vague statements he
made about Garcia's status leading up to games against New Orleans
and Houston, he never planned to play him against the Saints or

"I just don't think the opponent needs to know exactly who to
prepare for," Gruden said, emphasizing he's confident the
37-year-old now has had adequate time to recover from the injury
and will play Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons.

"I don't believe I should apologize, but I don't feel like we
have to divulge everything or let everyone know exactly where it is
in terms of the timetable for Jeff. We felt it was a two-week
injury. ... We feel we did the right thing, the only thing to let
the injury get better."

Garcia, injured Nov. 25 on the first play of a victory over
Washington, practiced last Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, fueling
speculation he might be ready to play against Houston. Gruden
waited until just before kickoff to reveal that backup Luke McCown
would start.

The coach said Garcia probably could have played, but declaring
him the third quarterback was "what we felt was the best interest
of Jeff Garcia and his health."

"A lot of guys can play hurt. Jeff clearly could have played,"
Gruden said. "It was our decision as an organization to hold him
for two games."

McCown threw for 266 yards and no interceptions, but was sacked
four times and lost a fumble that set up a touchdown in a 28-14
loss that stopped the Bucs (8-5) from clinching the NFC South.

While Gruden is looking forward to getting his regular starter
back on the field, he said he saw enough from McCown the past two
weeks to feel better about the team's backup situation.

Bruce Gradkowski replaced Garcia against the Redskins, but was
so ineffective after Tampa Bay took an early lead that Gruden sent
Garcia back into the game in the fourth quarter. McCown had a big
day passing and led a last-minute TD drive to beat the Saints two
weeks ago, but was not nearly as sharp against the Texans.

"Clearly there were seven or eight plays in the game that
weren't as good as the others, but I'm really pleased with what
he's done," Gruden said. "There's still plenty of room to grow,
but I think what we all see is a big, athletic guy that has promise
and potential to be outstanding."

Garcia may be back, but receiver Ike Hilliard's status is less
certain. He left Sunday's game with what Gruden described as an
upper back injury that trainers were still evaluating on Monday.

Without the sure-handed Hilliard, who has a team-leading 58
catches for 663 yards and is the Bucs' most effective receiver on
third downs, the Bucs converted just 3-of-13 third-down plays.

"We're confident he'll be able to play," Gruden said of
Hilliard's availability against the Falcons. "But we are concerned
about him."

If the 11th-year pro doesn't play, Michael Clayton and Maurice
Stovall will assume bigger roles in the offense.

"Obviously they have to step up," Gruden said.