TAMPA — One was trying to win a backup job. One was just trying to win a job.
Luke McCown did his part. So did Paris Warren. But only one of them will likely make the roster when Tampa Bay’s final cuts are announced on Saturday.
For the other, their season is likely over.
While McCown solidified his footing as the No. 2 quarterback in Tampa Bay’s 31-24 preseason victory over Houston on Thursday night, Warren was well on his way to making the coaching staff’s decision a difficult one until a freak injury on his second touchdown catch ended his night.
Warren, fighting for the final roster spot at wide receiver, caught seven passes for 110 yards and two touchdowns, the last one coming on a 31-yard passing strike from Bruce Gradkowski.
But as Warren crossed the goal line and went to the ground, the defensive back rolled over Warren’s left leg in an awkward angle. The receiver could be seen wincing in pain on television replays.
Several minutes later, paramedics carted Warren off the field. Moved by their teammate’s performance, the entire Buccaneers roster gathered around Warren, offered their support and urged the crowd to do the same.
Bucs head coach Jon Gruden said after the game that Warren had a dislocated left ankle and would likely be moved to injured reserve this weekend.
Chris Simms, who didn’t play on Thursday due to a strained hip, said Warren was in good spirits even as he was lying on the turf.
“He’s a class act,” Simms said. “They call him ‘Young Ike (Hilliard),’ because he’s a lot like Ike Hilliard. He’s a really smart football player, always makes the heady play and it’s just a shame to see that happen, especially after the night he was having. He was having such a great night. He was even himself when he got hurt and he was laying there in the end zone. He was calm and cool, saying Hi to everybody. That’s just Paris. I have a ton of respect for him.”
Gradkowski, who threw the pass to Warren, was impressed with Warren’s play as well.
“He had a great game,” Gradkowski said. “He’s stepped it up the whole preseason.”
McCown, meanwhile, started in place of Jeff Garcia and Warren helped the fourth-year quarterback look like he’d never missed most of last season with a knee injury.
McCown played the entire first half, going 15-of-20 for 203 yards, three touchdowns, one interception and a passer rating of 125.6. His night wasn’t perfect — he committed two fumbles and threw the interception, which slipped out of his hand — but he led the Bucs to 24 unanswered points after the Texans took a 14-0 lead.
Two of the three miscues came in wet ball situations, while the first sack was simply a great defensive play, McCown said.
“I have to have eyes in the back of my head a little better,” McCown said.
It’s the resiliency that surely impressed the Buccaneers coaching staff on Thursday.
“I think that’s crucial for young guys and second-string guys, to show we have that resiliency,” McCown said. “Things are going to happen in football games that sometimes we can’t control or just happen. You have to be able to bounce back from that and we showed that tonight.”
Warren caught that first touchdown pass, a 9-yarder with 4:46 left in the first quarter.
Warren’s longest catch of the game was a 51-yard pass-and-catch with McCown. The quarterback hit Warren on a quick slant, Warren broke a tackle and sprinted downfield before being brought down at the Texans 33-yard line.
That provided the momentum for a 90-yard scoring drive. McCown finished it off with a 5-yard touchdown pass to running back Lionel Gates, making it 24-14 Bucs.
McCown appears to be a safe bet to be the No. 2 quarterback come next week.
“Like we’ve said all along, he’s got a lot of talent,” Gruden said. “You see his mobility, he has a quick, accurate stroke, he’s got good command. I really think he’s got a great upside.”
Gradkowski took his shot in the second half, and while he threw the touchdown pass to Warren, he didn’t have as prodigious a night as McCown.
Gradkowski finished 13-of-19 for 141 yards and a touchdown.
“I haven’t come into any game this preseason with the mindset of, ‘I have to solidify myself a spot,” McCown said. “I just wanted to win games and we were able to accomplish that tonight.”
Simms said he injured his hip in practice on Tuesday. After testing the hip in pregame warmups, he realized that he would not be able to play in the final preseason game. It is not an injury, he said, that would force him to injured reserve of the regular-season physically unable to perform list.
There’s no way to know if Simms will be with the Bucs after the final cuts are made on Saturday. But he is certain that if the Bucs needed him to play next week in the season opener against Seattle, he could.
“I guess you could say my luck hasn’t been real high lately,” Simms said. “I’m not far off. I played last week so it’s not like I’m far off. I’m not going to say that I was 100 percent myself last week when I played, but I’m getting there. And I think if I continue to do the work and rehab on this thing, we’ve got a pretty good hold on it right now. We’re doing the right exercises. I’ve really felt a difference the last few weeks. I’m hoping that they’re going to keep me here. Seattle, I think I’d be ready to go if they needed me.”
Only two starters — safeties Jermaine Phillips and Will Allen — started on Thursday.
First-round pick Gaines Adams started at right defensive end, but left the game in the second quarter after Houston lineman Jordan Black hit Adams hard from behind on a dead ball, drawing a personal foul. Adams did not return, but was seen standing on the sidelines shortly after the hit. Team officials said after the game that Adams was fine.
Defensively, safety Sabby Piscitelli had his first interception as a Buccaneer in the second quarter. The defense also forced a fumble and turnover in the second half.
Matthew Postins covers the Buccaneers for BucsBlitz.com and the Charlotte Sun-Herald in Port Charlotte, Fla. He is a member of the Pro Football Writers Association and has won national awards for his Buccaneers coverage from the PFWA, the National Newspaper Association and the Associated Press Sports Editors. He is also a contributor to the Scot Brantley Show from 4-7 p.m. weekdays on WHBO 1490-AM in Tampa-Clearwater.