Quarterback Tim Rattay won’t be mistaken for Joe Montana anytime soon, but his three touchdown passes on Sunday proved that the backup quarterback gives Tampa Bay the best chance to win, bringing the Bucs to the doorstep of victory against a heavily favored Chicago Bears team only to lose 34-31 in overtime.
It may be too soon to anoint Rattay the savior of all that troubles the Bucs, but he led the team to water in the midst of a drought that was reaching momentous proportions.
Only a week away from Christmas and the offense hadn’t found the end zone since Thanksgiving Day, a span of 13 quarters.
Then, in a matter of 72 seconds, the team did twice what it had failed to do in more than three hours of actual game time — score a touchdown. The 31 points total are the most Tampa Bay has scored this season.
Ironically, the dry spell ended where it began, with fullback Mike Alstott. His 14-yard run in the third quarter was the first Bucs touchdown since he scored on a 1-yard plunge in the first quarter against Dallas back on Thanksgiving.
Before you could rub your eyes to make sure you weren’t dreaming, Rattay hit tight end Alex Smith for a 9-yard score following a turnover.
The move to Rattay changed the complexion of the game as he led an inspired offense back from a 24-3 third quarter deficit with four touchdown drives in the team’s final six possessions of regulation. The last, a 44-yard pitch and catch to wide receiver Ike Hilliard, tied the score at 31 with under four minutes to go.
The possibility he’d replace starter Bruce Gradkowski was a significant side note leading up to kickoff, but the big hype surrounded Bears speedster Devin Hester. The question not being if Chicago would win, but would Hester add to his record-setting six kick returns for touchdowns and outscore Tampa Bay’s offense himself?
The Bucs’ special teams answered with a definitive no, but Hester was definitely a factor. His fumble on the kickoff following Alstott’s touchdown set up the Rattay-to-Smith score.
For the better part of the first two quarters, it appeared Bucs head coach Jon Gruden’s team was outmatched. Down 7-0 with the offense mired in dysfunction, Chicago’s Dante Wesley handed Gradkowski a way out. His 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on a Tampa Bay punt return put the ball on the Bears’ 26-yard line to start the drive.
But three plays later, the team was forced to settle for a Matt Bryant field goal from the 27, as the offense went backward, not forward.
When Tampa Bay got the ball back after a Thomas Jones 5-yard run made it 14-3, Gradkowski was watching from the sidelines. Completing 5-of-11 attempts for 37 yards was enough for Gruden to pull the rookie for the second week in a row. His inability to produce a touchdown or place the ball in the hands of receiver Joey Galloway on three first half possessions reason enough.
His opposition, Bears quarterback Rex Grossman, pieced together a career day, setting personal bests for completions (29), attempts (44) and yards (339). Prior to Sunday, it had been 72 games since a Bears quarterback had thrown for more than 300 yards.
Most of his success came by finding tight end Desmond Clark who caught six balls for 107 yards and two touchdowns in the first half, including a 24-yard touchdown for the Bears’ first score and then 12-yarder just before the half to put Chicago up 21-3.
The Bucs defense tightened up, limiting Clark to one 18-yard reception in the second half. They allowed 446 yards of total offense, but did manage to find a pass rush, sacking Grossman four times.
In a little more than two quarters of playing time, Rattay completed 20 of his 35 attempts for 268 yards and three touchdowns. His big plays came on a 64-yard touchdown pass to Galloway and the 44-yarder to Hilliard, both in the fourth quarter.
Unlike Grossman, Rattay did not have the luxury of a running game to count on. Tampa Bay amassed just 57 yards on the ground, with feature back Cadillac Williams accounting for just 26 yards on 11 carries. Alstott added six carries for 26 yards.
The Bears duo of Thomas Jones and Cedric Benson were part of a 134-yard effort, each finding the end zone once. Third-stringer Adrian Peterson would also contribute. His 11-yard run in overtime help set up the game-winning field goal.
It would be kicker Robbie Gould’s second attempt. His first opportunity to win went wide left from 37 yards. That was set up when Alex Smith fumbled on the Bucs’ first possession in overtime and tackle Jeremy Trueblood threw his helmet down adding another 15 yards, putting the ball on the Bucs’ 22.
A Tampa Bay offense that ended the second half so hot, suddenly hit a slump, unable to move the ball and bogged down by two false start penalties on its final possession. Punter Josh Bidwell was forced to kick from his own end zone.
Getting the ball at the 50, Grossman hit wide receiver Rashied Davis on third down for 28 yards. The ball appeared to hit the ground, but a replay was not called for. Peterson’s 11-yard run moved the ball inside the 20-yard line and Bears head coach Lovie Smith called on Gould again, who this time connected from 25 yards out.
The Bucs drop their fourth straight game, falling to 3-11 while Chicago improves to 12-2 and secures home field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs. Tampa Bay will visit Cleveland on Christmas Eve.