TAMPA — The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have never played a regular-season game in which Pro Bowl guards Carl Nicks and Davin Joseph were in the lineup together.
That might finally change this week.
Nicks, who has missed nearly a month of work with a MRSA infection on his left foot, returned to practice Wednesday and later said he could return to the Bucs’ lineup Sunday against the Saints.
“I’m MRSA clear,’’ Nicks declared with a wide smile after participating in a limited fashion in the workout at One Buc Place. “I’m all right. I’m just trying to get back out there and, hopefully, I’ll be ready for this game.’’
The Bucs signed Nicks to a five-year, $47.5 million contract in the spring of 2012 with the idea of pairing the two-time Pro Bowl left guard with Joseph, a two-time Pro Bowl right guard.
The two were together for a few snaps in the first three preseason games last year, but Joseph was lost to a season-ending knee injury in the third exhibition game. That was just the start of a string of calamities that included Nicks suffering a season-ending left big toe injury in Week 8 and the discovery of the MRSA infection last month.
Nicks has fought the infection with antibiotics ever since, but said he was recently cleared to return to normal activity after cultures and blood samples came back clear of the infection.
“Anytime you get any kind of injury like that there’s pain, but it was more mental than anything,’’ Nicks said of dealing with the infection. “I wasn’t really scared, just irritated that I couldn’t be out there with my guys.’’
Though Nicks is eager to play Sunday, he might not be ready. Prohibited because of the infection from doing any physical fitness work for almost three weeks, Nicks only recently began running again and admits he is still not in proper “football shape.’’
“I don’t want you to get the wrong view,’’ Bucs coach Greg Schiano said of Nicks’ status. “He was out there (Wednesday) doing some stuff, but he was very limited. So, I don’t know what’s going to happen with Carl. We’re just playing it by ear, going day to day.
“If he doesn’t go (this week), it will be just like last week. Gabe Carimi, right now, is the guy if Carl can’t go, but we’re going to look at it all week and then make a decision.’’
There is little doubt the Bucs could use whatever boost Nicks might give them. They ran for just 65 yards and surrendered three sacks and five quarterback hits during an 18-17 loss to the Jets last week.
That the home opener is against the team Nicks played four seasons with before joining the Bucs is added incentive for Nicks to play.
“I’ve got nothing but respect for those guys,’’ Nicks said of the Saints. “I love the way they compete and that’s where I got my competitive edge from, so I will do everything in my power to play. We’ll just have to see how it goes.’’
Saints quarterback Drew Brees described the 6-foot-5, 349-pound Nicks as a “monster’’ of a player.
“You tell the running backs and everybody running the football from the backfield to just find that big boy and trail right behind him,’’ Brees said Wednesday. “He’ll lead the way.
“And, obviously, he’s a great pass protector, too. All in all, he’s a very complete guard, a great player and a great guy. And I know it’s been tough for him with his toe and all that, but tell him if he just wants to miss one more week, just to make sure that it’s all good, go ahead and do that.’’
If there was one blessing out of the MRSA ordeal, Nicks said, it gave his surgically repaired left toe even more time to heal.
“My toe is good,’’ Nicks said. “The toe is not an issue at all. The only thing that set me back was the MRSA, and now that that’s gone I’m ready to go.’’
The same cannot be said of kicker Lawrence Tynes, who contracted a MRSA infection after he was treated for an ingrown toenail on his kicking foot early in Bucs training camp
Tynes has been receiving antibiotics through a PICC line for nearly three weeks, with that treatment scheduled to last a minimum of five to six weeks. Tynes, who was put on the Non-Football-Injury list, said recently he planned to file a grievance because players on the NFI list are not credited with a year of service toward NFL retirement benefits.
“I can’t speak for him,” Nicks said, “but I’m happy it’s over with and I don’t have it anymore and that I can get back to playing football and not have to worry about MRSA anymore.’’
Joseph is happy, too. He’s been looking forward to working alongside Nicks for months. Now that it might finally be at hand, he’s eager, though cautious, to do it.
“I’m excited for it, but at the same time he has to be healthy,” Joseph said. “He has to be in shape and he has to be confident. So, we’re not going to rush it. He has to come back and play like the Carl Nicks we know, so it has to be right.’’