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President Hugh MacArthur
My mother has ESP. It’s true. She’s told me this for years, and has made some predictions that have proved accurate. Unfortunately none of these predictions have involved me winning the Florida lottery or picking up Google shares during its IPO. However, she did tell me on Friday that the Buccaneers were going to be competitive with the Bears on Sunday. I should mention here that my mother is a devoted and knowledgeable Bucs fan. She and I talk often on the phone during games. She understood exactly what she was saying to me when she said, “I don’t know why, but I just get this feeling that we are going to be very competitive in this game. We might not win, but I think it will be very close.”

Well, an early Christmas present to my mother, then. After approximately 40 depressing minutes of football, the Buccaneers came to inexplicable life. Incomprehensible life! Not one, not two, not three, but four, four touchdowns against the vaunted Bears defense in Chicago. A 24-3 laugher became 31-31 at the end of regulation. The Buccaneers may or may not win another game this season. It does not matter. This was game that in many ways saved their season, and if there was any doubt, saved the jobs of the head coach and general manager.

How does a 34-31 loss save jobs? It saves jobs, and a season, because for the first time since appetizers on Thanksgiving Day, the Bucs showed a pulse. The team showed fight. The Bucs showed that just maybe there is reason to hope for the future. The team showed that Coach Jon Gruden had indeed not lost the locker room. Down 21-3 at the half, it would have been easy to pack in the game and simply go home against an 11-2 opponent playing for home field advantage in the playoffs. The Bucs did not let this happen.

Tim Rattay became a reliever with a spark. It was very obvious that Bruce Gradkowski, as I have mentioned in this space before, is simply not ready for prime time. He has regressed since that Thanksgiving debacle, and it was clear in the first quarter that he was out of his element. It is simply not his time. The kid may have many talents and intangibles, but he needs to sit for now and learn. I applaud Gruden’s willingness to give him the hook when it was clear he just wasn’t going to progress, and I am glad Gruden was ready early in the game to make a switch.

As I discussed last week, I do not believe Tim Rattay is the savior for this offense. He will not be the starting quarterback in Tampa Bay next season. What he is, though, is an experienced starter in the West Coast offense. He is also experienced dealing with the speed of the game in the NFL. Isn’t it amazing how much better Gruden looks as an offensive coordinator when he has a quarterback that can actually make the reads his offense demands? Suddenly, all of those press conferences where Gruden described “good looks” in the passing game downfield that were never fulfilled became understandable. Joey Galloway, bang! Ike Hilliard, bang! This offense was downright, dare I say it? Okay, explosive, against one of the top defenses in the league.

Did the team still do enough to lose the game? Well, yes, of course. The Bucs didn’t get to 3-10 prior to Sunday by playing lots of good football. But, rock bottom has been hit, and this team is now on the way back up. The young talent on offense has just seen that they can score and they can compete, even with very good NFL teams. Don’t put the shades on yet, Bucs fans, but this loss may have been the beginning of the way out of the woods. The right way to build on Sunday’s performance is to go into Cleveland, get a win, and then give Seattle hell in the last home game of the season. Let’s hope there’s just a touch more excitement left in this season for all Bucs fans under their Christmas tree.

Here’s another baker’s dozen of quick thoughts on Sunday’s game and the season:

1) I couldn’t help but watch the Eagles vs. Giants game after the clock struck midnight on the Bucs’ chances in Chicago. I saw nothing that dissuaded me from the opinion that the 2007 Buccaneer quarterback currently plays in green. He certainly didn’t have his best game as a pro, but Jeff Garcia can run Jon Gruden’s offense with the poise of a veteran. I was very impressed that when he threw a devastating interception late in the game, Garcia calmly responded by leading the Eagles to the winning score.

2) Please, someone get the Bucs some safeties that can play for Christmas. Will Allen was way out of position on the Bears’ second touchdown pass to Desmond Clark, and Jermaine Phillips got bulldozed by Cedric Benson for another score. Does anybody remember how to wrap up and tackle?

3) Dewayne White, what are you thinking? Olin Kreutz was a jerk to knee you, and he certainly should be fined, but please, wait at least a few plays before trying to retaliate.

4) Here’s hoping Robbie Gould gets a Christmas card from Alex Smith and Jeremy Trueblood. Smith’s fumble and Trueblood’s unspeakable personal foul for throwing his helmet in overtime should have cost the Bucs the game and fit Messers Smith and Trueblood with a set of goat horns. Instead, he hooked the 37-yarder, and the Bucs had new life.

5) I like Davin Joseph’s attitude. He has a nasty streak, and is really willing to mix it up on the field. He still needs work in pass protection, but the thing I like best about him is that he does not go backwards. He is a strong anchor and really ties his man up.

6) I liked seeing Maurice Stovall get a bit more involved in the offense, but, memo to Maurice: no more stupid taunting penalties. I don’t care if you didn’t mean to, spiking the ball for a first down catch is bush league. You haven’t done anything in this league yet. Take a page from Ladanian Tomlinson’s playbook. Ever watch what he does when he scores all of those touchdowns? Most of the time, he simply hands the ball to the referee.

7) Just curious, but did anybody in the defensive huddle discuss the need to cover Desmond Clark at some point during the game?

8) Just curious, too: that naked bootleg with a pass to the fullback has been in Tampa’s playbook since Jon Gruden turned up five years ago. How come the defense reacted like they’d never seen it before vs. the Bears?

9) It was frustrating to watch the same plays over and over rip off chunks of yardage against the Bucs, but the defense was on the field for most of the first three quarters. The offense must start doing its share. They were late to the party, but it was nice to see the offense pick up the slack in the last quarter.

10) Chris Hovan is still the fire this defense needs. He was a force again today vs. the run and put good pressure up the middle on Grossman.

11) The offensive line pass protected just well enough to give Tim Rattay time to throw. Given his success, don’t be surprised if the running game suddenly takes off next week in Cleveland. Anybody watching the game tape vs the Bears stacks the box with eight or nine defenders at their peril.

12) Please, let’s hold the screams of Mike Alstott fans that he now needs 25 touches a game for the Bucs to win. I like Mike as much as the next person, and I like seeing him get his touches, but he is 32 years old and is not the answer to all of the team’s problems on offense.

13) Please, let’s not crucify Jon Gruden for not going to Rattay in game four when Simms was injured. I am sure this type of revisionist approach will be used by Gruden-haters to imply that the Bucs would be in the playoffs had Rattay been at the helm since game four. Well, it isn’t true. Rattay was bad in training camp and bad during the preseason. Gradkowski won the back-up job for a reason. Gruden may be criticized for sticking by the kid for too long, but he didn’t pull him until it was clear that Grads had regressed to the point that he needed to sit down. I also applaud Gruden for yanking Stovall, Dewayane White, and others off the field on Sunday after boneheaded plays.

Publisher Scott Reynolds

Tim Rattay should start the last two games of the season at quarterback without question. I think Bruce Gradkowski’s confidence is shot (and the players’ confidence in Gradkowski) and he needs to sit back, watch and learn. The good news is that Gradkowski got meaningful tape in 11 games. He can learn from this in the offseason and become a better quarterback due to the experience he received. Because he has more of an upside than Rattay and he will be under contract in 2007 – unlike Rattay – the Buccaneers were still wise to start him this year. Sure, the second-guessers, hindsighters and Monday morning quarterbacks will be out in full force today wondering "What if Jon Gruden had Tim Rattay start all 11 games instead of Gradkowski" Would the Bucs have won more games? Perhaps, perhaps not. We’ll never know. Rattay played very well in the fourth quarter against Chicago, but let’s remember that he didn’t engineer a comeback win – only a comeback. Rattay couldn’t get the game-winning field goal despite having the ball at the 50-yard line with 1:51 left, and he also had three possessions in overtime to engineer a game-winning drive, too. Not to mention three scoreless third quarter possessions before the Bucs got on the board with a touchdown. Rattay played very well, produced touchdowns and injected some life into an offense that lost some confidence, but he’s not the long-term answer at quarterback for the Buccaneers. He’s a two-game answer.
Derrick Brooks got absolutely picked on by the Bears. I can’t recall seeing a game where so much of the game plan has actually been attacking Brooks. Chicago’s tight ends and fullback combined for 13 catches for 177 yards and two touchdowns. That accounted for half of the Bears’ passing production on the day. The Bucs were playing a good deal of zone coverage and between Brooks and the safeties, they did a poor job of covering tight ends Desmond Clark and John Gilmore and fullback Jason McKie. Safety Jermaine Phillips got beat by Clark for a touchdown in man coverage on one play, but otherwise the Bears took advantage of Brooks and the safeties in the seam and in the flats with play action. Brooks looked sluggish on the field and it appears as if he lost a step, but it should be noted that he injured his leg last week and re-injured it this week, too. I believe Jamie Winborn should have rotated with him to keep Brooks fresher.
If the Chicago Bears don’t franchise weakside linebacker Lance Briggs, expect the Bucs to make a strong run at him in free agency. Briggs wants a big payday, and deserves it. He is a younger, faster version of Derrick Brooks. Briggs was everywhere on Sunday, making 10 tackles, forcing a fumble and being a disruptive force. I like Briggs as a player.
The officiating in the Bucs-Bears game was littered with a couple of dubious calls. Anthony Becht’s catch in overtime was marked about half a yard short of where it should have been. It was a borderline first down. It appeared to me that Danieal Manning’s foot was out of bounds when he touched the ball on Alex Smith’s overtime fumble, which should have made that a dead ball. But the biggest gaffe was the fact that Rashied Davis’ 28-yard catch in overtime was not reviewed by the instant replay booth. That was a terrible decision as TV replays showed that the ball hit the ground on Davis’ catch. That play didn’t necessarily cost the Bucs the game, but it surely didn’t help their cause, either.
It’s amazing what a veteran quarterback can do in Jon Gruden’s offense. In my opinion, Gruden should target Jeff Garcia in free agency, attempt to re-sign Chris Simms and have Bruce Gradkowski and Luke McCown battle it out for the third-string job. This group of QBs gives Gruden the best chance to win in 2007. Garcia knows the West Coast offense, while Simms, Gradkowksi and McCown all have time and experience in Gruden’s system. It may not be flashy, but having Garcia start next year while Simms, Gradkowski and McCown get to prove in the preseason which player is further ahead and the odds-on favorite to be the quarterback of the future is the right path to take next year.
I mentioned this in my Game Grades, but special teams coach Rich Bisaccia deserves an awful lot of credit for getting his coverage units ready to play Devin Hester. Bisaccia has come under fire from fans and the media in recent years for a lackluster return and kicking game, but he deserves major props for his work last week and on Sunday. Hester averaged under 16 yards per kick return just a week after returning two kicks for touchdowns. His 10.5-yard punt return average was also acceptable. The best part is that Bisaccia’s special teamers got into Hester’s head by forcing three fumbles and recovering one.
Editor-In-Chief Jim Flynn
After watching Tim Rattay come off the bench and ignite Tampa Bay’s struggling offense by tossing three touchdowns and engineering a total of four scoring drives after the Bucs had fallen down 24-3 to the Bears, some fans likely will ask why Bucs head coach Jon Gruden didn’t go to Rattay earlier in the season. Tampa Bay’s offense had, after all, gone 13 straight quarters without scoring an offensive touchdowns, and was held without a touchdown in six games this season. However, anyone that was at training camp and watched Rattay and rookie QB Bruce Gradkowski play should already have the answer to that question. There are good reasons why Rattay has been riding the bench throughout most of this season. With Rattay scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, the Bucs felt they were better off giving Gradkowski more playing time since they believe he has more upside than Rattay, who likely won’t be back next year. The fact that Rattay came in and rallied Tampa Bay’s offense is a real credit to him. But to think Rattay would have been playing like that all season long had he been in the starting lineup earlier is pretty far-fetched.

When the Buccaneers were trailing the Bears 24-3 in the third quarter and had not scored an offensive touchdown for 13 straight quarters, I found myself wondering if the Glazers had left Soldier Field to drive 90 miles down the road to South Bend, Indiana to talk to Notre Dame head coach Charlie Weis. I’m kidding, but I’m not. I wasn’t sure how Jon Gruden was going to survive such a disastrous season, but then Tampa Bay’s troops rallied and showed some real fight for themselves and for their head coach. Although they didn’t win the game, the fact that the Bucs rallied from a 21-point deficit and nearly upset the Bears is something that can’t be overlooked. It told me the players are still playing for Gruden. It also told me Gruden’s playbook actually works when the players, particularly the quarterbacks, execute it. If the Glazers did in fact take off at halftime and head to South Bend to talk to Weis, they missed the best offensive effort the Bucs have had in quite a while.

How bad was Tampa Bay’s offense before its late surge in the second half? Late in the first quarter, Tampa Bay’s defense appeared to force tight end Desmond Clark to fumble, which linebacker Derrick Brooks picked up. Brooks started running down the left sideline and attempted to lateral the football to safety Jermaine Phillips. The ball went out of bounds, and a replay challenge showed that Clark was down before he fumbled the ball. Still, Brooks’ attempt to lateral the ball suggests the defense had little to no faith in the Bucs offense. After watching the offense play this year, could you really blame the defense?

I’m not sure which mistake was worse – tight end Alex Smith’s fumble in overtime or tackle Jeremy Trueblood’s personal foul penalty after the fumble. Put it this way – neither play was one you’d want to have in an overtime contest. However, if I’m Bucs head coach Jon Gruden, I’m benching Trueblood next week. You simply can’t have the type of bonehead mistake that Trueblood had Sunday when he took off his helmet and slammed it in frustration after Smith had fumbled and the Bears had recovered the ball. Smith’s fumble gave the Bears the ball, but Trueblood’s put the Bears in field goal range. Luckily for Trueblood, the Bears missed their first field goal attempt in overtime. Still, Gruden needs to show Trueblood and his players that these types of mistakes won’t be tolerated. I’d bench Trueblood in favor of Cornell Green, even if it’s just for one quarter or one series next Sunday in Cleveland.

If you were watching Sunday’s game, you might have seen Tampa Bay’s future weakside linebacker. While he does sport jersey No. 55, this player currently plays for Chicago, not Tampa Bay. Lance Briggs is currently employed by the Bears, and after watching Bucs nine-time Pro Bowler Derrick Brooks struggle in this game and throughout the season, I’m convinced the Bucs need to make a serious push for Briggs, who is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent in 2007. Age is obviously taking its toll on Brooks, which isn’t a knock on him – he’s only human. Briggs, 26, possesses a lot of the playmaking ability Brooks possessed when he played in his prime. Briggs notched 11 tackles and one key forced fumble in Sunday’s game. Brooks had eight tackles, but he was too slow in coverage. Bears tight end Desmond Clark hauled in seven passes for 125 yards and two touchdowns. Not all of those catches can be attributed to Brooks, but his play certainly didn’t help matters.

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