Door is wide open for Buccaneers in NFC South

All around the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the NFC South continues crumbling.

The Atlanta Falcons lost quarterback Michael Vick and their way.

The New Orleans Saints lost running back Deuce McAllister and their first three games.

And the Carolina Panthers have lost quarterback Jake Delhomme and their best reason for hope.

Delhomme missed Sunday's loss against Tampa Bay, and it looks like he is going to miss a significant amount of additional time. His elbow injury is not "day to day" so much as it is "week to week" and, even more likely, "month to month."

Surgery still is a possibility, but the Panthers still are unsure whether or not Delhomme will need it. Any decision on a potential surgery might be delayed until doctors can determine how Delhomme is healing.

At the very least, Delhomme is out for an indefinite period, which is reflected in the mood of some within the Panthers organization. The Panthers know they are a different team without Delhomme and with David Carr playing quarterback.

Delhomme is the calming influence on wide receiver Steve Smith, the rest of the offense, and even a slow-starting defense that relaxes more when it is staked to an early lead.

What's worrisome about Delhomme's injury is how it has affected other quarterbacks in the past. Former Oakland quarterback Bobby Hoying saw his career end when he suffered a tendon injury in his elbow like Delhomme has. Other NFL greats such as Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw also could not return from similar elbow injuries.

Without Delhomme, the Panthers will have to lean on Carr, the former Houston Texans castoff who failed to impress Sunday. Without Delhomme, Tampa Bay becomes the prohibitive favorites to win the NFC South.

But Tampa has its own problems to overcome. It lost running back Cadillac Williams to a season-ending injury, a torn patella tendon. Also, offensive tackle Luke Petitgout got hit with a nasty double, tearing his anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments during Sunday's win over Carolina.

But Tampa Bay sits in first place, with fewer problems and a better record than the competition. The division is setting up perfectly for the Buccaneers.

One and done

When Daunte Culpepper negotiated with the Jacksonville Jaguars, talks broke off when the quarterback insisted on having a one-year deal.

Jacksonville wanted to sign Culpepper for three years; he refused to commit for so long.

Now the football world has gotten a glimpse as to why. Culpepper believed in himself more than teams did. He thought that, if given the chance to play this season, he could shine and show teams he is better than they realize.

All along, Culpepper has wanted to establish a long-term relationship with one team. Maybe that team is Oakland, which Culpepper led to a win in Miami on Sunday, when he ran for three touchdowns and attempted 12 passes.

But Culpepper, acting as his own agent, made sure to negotiate a one-year deal this past summer. The better he plays, the more options and richer contract he will have.

Blasts from the past

Dolphins running back Ricky Williams faxed his reinstatement application to the NFL on Monday, hoping commissioner Roger Goodell clears him to play sooner rather than later.

Williams is said to be in the best mental condition of his career and absolutely wants to resume playing football.

The Dolphins, who hold his rights, have had no contact with Williams for months, a sign that Miami is not interested in bringing him back. But if Miami harbors any hopes of trading Williams –- and there actually could be a small market for his services -– then the league would have to reinstate him by Oct. 16, which is the trade deadline.

Ricky Williams, RB
Career statistics
Games: 82

Att: 1,757

Yds: 7,097

Avg: 4.0

Rush/rec TD: 47/4

If it does not, then Miami likely would release Williams. If Williams were released, he would be free to sign with any team. As a vested veteran –- who happens to still be playing for the rookie minimum –- Williams would have the right to sign where he wants.

Where Williams would land is speculative, at best. He is considered an icon in Texas, and it's possible the Dallas Cowboys could consider visiting with him. Green Bay also needs a running back, and Williams might be an upgrade over some of the Packers' players. And Tampa Bay could be in the market for a running back after losing Cadillac Williams.

More reinstatements

Some other familiar faces will be showing up around the league, starting Sunday.

As if New England hasn't been impressive enough through the early part of the season, now the Patriots get back safety Rodney Harrison, who is finished serving a four-game suspension.

The Raiders, who lost running back LaMont Jordan on Sunday to an ankle injury, get former Indianapolis Colts running back Dominic Rhodes. Oakland added Rhodes to complement Jordan during the offseason, and his return comes at an opportune time for the Raiders, who find themselves tied for first place in the AFC West.

Other players returning from four-game suspensions include Tampa Bay conrerback Torrie Cox, who was a special teams Pro-Bowl alternate last season; Cleveland Browns offensive lineman Ryan Tucker, who will provide more depth to an improved unit; and St. Louis Rams cornerback Fakhir Brown, who was the team's best defensive back last season.

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