There were times Sunday against New Orleans when Tampa Bay’s Bruce Gradkowski looked like a rookie quarterback making his first NFL start. But there were moments when his play appeared anything but green.
When he found tight end Alex Smith on a 3-yard touchdown pass for the go-ahead score in the fourth quarter, it looked as if the story of the day around the league might be centered around the sixth-round draft pick from Toledo.
But leave it to the NFL’s most high profile rookie to steal the spotlight before Gradkowski even had a moment to bask in its glory.
The Saints’ first-round draft pick (No. 2 overall), Reggie Bush, finally achieved what everybody around the league knew he was capable of, including the 11 players on Tampa Bay’s punt unit. Bush’s 65-yard touchdown return of Josh Bidwell’s punt in the fourth quarter sent the Superdome into a frenzy and the Buccaneers home with their fourth loss of the season, 24-21.
With so many uncertainties heading into the game, particularly surrounding Gradkowski, the Buccaneers couldn’t have asked for a better start. On the team’s first offensive possession, he capped a 6-play, 61-yard with an 18-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Joey Galloway.
The smile that had been absent from Bucs head coach Jon Gruden’s face may have never been wider.
Gradkowski executed the Buccaneer game plan, which called for a strong rushing attack coupled with short, safe passes to tight ends and running backs out of the backfield, to near perfection.
For the first time all season, running back Cadillac Williams ran with the abandon that netted him more than 400 yards in his first three games in 2005. He eclipsed the century mark for the first time this year, ending the day with 111-yards on 20 carries.
Gradkowski benefited from the ground attack, completing seven of his first 11 attempts and 20-of-31 for the day. The main beneficiary, being wide receiver Joey Galloway, who also eclipsed the 100-yard mark, hauled in four passes for 110 yards and a touchdown.
The one thing the Buccaneers (0-4) failed to turn around against the Saints (4-1) was their poor tackling on defense. Bush and fellow running back Deuce McAllister ran through the arms of Tampa Bay defenders for most of the first half, the worst example coming on McAllister’s 24-yard touchdown run in the second quarter in which he broke three tackles to put the Saints up 10-7.
McAllister rushed for 123-yards on 15 carries, marking his first 100-yard game since October of 2005 when he went for 130 yards against the Bills.
In the third quarter, Gradkowski committed his only big mistake of the day, fumbling the football after defensive end Charles Grant sacked him from behind. Tackle Rodney Leisle recovered for the Saints at the Tampa Bay 25-yard line and New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees found tight end Ernie Conwell four plays later on a 9-yard touchdown pass to put the Saints up by 10.
That’s when Gruden opened the playbook for Gradkowski. On second-and-2 from the Tampa Bay 46-yard line, the rookie quarterback executed a beautiful play-action fake and hit a well covered Joey Galloway in stride for a 52-yard gain to the New Orleans 2-yard line.
Fullback Mike Alstott punctuated the drive with a 1-yard plunge into the end zone, cutting the lead to three.
The Buccaneers began their second drive of the fourth quarter on the Saints 40 following a defensive stand and 9-yard punt return by Mark Jones. Cadillac Williams’ longest run of the year, a 34-yarder, put Tampa Bay in the red zone. That’s when Gradkowski hit Smith for his second touchdown pass of the day. He finished the day with a veteran-like 107.6 passer rating and 225-yards through the air.
But in a game where so many things could’ve done the Buccaneers in, it was special teams and a lightning quick rookie that dealt the ultimate blow. Bush’s 65-yard punt return resembled so many of the highlights he accumulated at the University of Southern California last year. Not only was it spectacular, but it will also go down in history as the first of what many project as a promising career.
Trailing by three points following the return, the Buccaneers’ rookie quarterback nearly accomplished the most unlikely of all things, lead his team down the field on the road with less than five minutes left and one timeout.
He hit connected on three consecutive passes to receivers Ike Hilliard, Galloway and Michael Clayton, although Clayton’s was nullified for holding on guard Dan Buenning. However that penalty would pale in comparison to the one Galloway would make.
On third-and-4 from the New Orleans’ 41-yard line, Gradkowski stepped up in the pocket and connected with a wide open Hilliard for 38 yards to the Saints 3-yard line. The New Orleans crowd stood stunned, but soon let out a gasp of relief as they noticed the yellow flag.
Hilliard was so open as the result of a pick on the defender by Galloway. The play was called back and the drive stalled two plays later on fourth-and-9 when a reception by Williams came significantly shy of the first down marker.
Saints quarterback Drew Brees ended the day with a humble 171 yards on 21 completions. Undoubtedly, Bush was the difference maker in a game in which the defense said all week they were prepared to stop him.
Bush finished with 111 total yards. He caught 11 passes for 63 yards, carried nine times for 23-yards and had the game-winning punt return for 65 yards.
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