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 availability.
"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.
Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press