Tampa Bay's quarterback situation was supposed to be settled on Thursday night when the Buccaneers hosted the Miami Dolphins in a rain-soaked, nationally televised affair on Fox. Did a winner of the QB derby emerge in Tampa Bay's 10-6 loss?
Probably Byron Leftwich by default, although Bucs head coach Raheem Morris did not make a decision after the game.
"You have to go back, you have to evaluate and you have to look," Morris said. "You see mistakes from both of the guys. Anytime you come out of a game, you don't get a chance to get six, you don't get a chance to get six points there you have to go back. You have to look at the tape. You have to see what the reasons were, what were the causes of everything."
With the Bucs clearly in rebuilding mode, Thursday night's much-hyped quarterback duel resembled the epic Trent Dilfer-Casey Weldon clash in 1995, a season in which Tampa Bay went 7-9 and suffered from poor quarterback play.
These Bucs might be lucky to win six games.
Make no mistake that both of the quarterback candidates struggled through the preseason, and the fact that Leftwich completed only 48.8 percent of his passes in three games is a sign that Tampa Bay could be in for a very long season.
Leftwich started the Miami game and was 9-of-17 passing for 100 yards with several overthrows, including probable touchdowns passes to Brian Clark on the first drive and tight end Kellen Winslow on the third drive. Bucs fans booed loudly after the misfire to Winslow.
"We missed some wideouts. That was easy to see," Morris said. "We missed some receivers out there so we have to go back and look at the tape."
Leftwich acknowledged his overthrown balls after the game.
"I was booing myself," Leftwich said of his overthrow to Winslow. "That's something you've got to hit and I understand all of that. You can't miss a wide-open guy. I kind of wish someone was coming, I think I would've made a better throw to him being that wide open, but I'll go back and practice and I promise you I won't miss those next time.
"We moved the ball pretty well. We have to work on some timing with the guys we have. We've had a lot of injuries at wide receiver. I missed a few, but other than that, I like what we did today. I felt good. I missed a few, but I hit a few also. Luckily for me, on the ones I missed, I made plays on the following play to get those first downs. That is something that I can't do – miss guys – but that is something that I can correct and be ready to roll."
Leftwich had the advantage of a comfortable pocket for most of his duration along with light rain and starting center Jeff Faine in the first quarter.
On the other hand, McCown played with backup center Sean Mahan and faced a deluge of rain after a 45-minute rain delay, in addition to a crumbling pocket that allowed him to get sacked twice and take an intentional grounding penalty in a miserable stretch of plays in which he 0-for-4 in the second quarter. His lone bright spot in the first half was a 4-yard scramble on third-and-4 to pick up a first down on his first drive.
The rain let up in the second half and McCown was 5-of-7 passing for 38 yards in the third quarter, but finished the game 5-of-11, including his dreadful second quarter.
"We were trying to focus on getting the ball out a little quicker," McCown said. "After the rain delay and the second half, [Miami] really tried to heat us up with some quick double edge pressure and a lot of things like that. We were trying to get the ball out quick. We got some things going and we were able to get down in field goal range. We have to go ahead and convert points there."
Leftwich improved his third-down efficiency in the preseason against Miami and led a total of four scoring drives, including a pair of field goals on Thursday night, totaling 19 points through three games.
McCown only led the Bucs to 14 points on two touchdown passes against Jacksonville last week. His numbers through three preseason games are 15-of-28 (53.8 percent) for 108 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions.
Morris will likely go with Leftwich as the starter against Dallas in Week 1, citing his experience and the four scoring drives he produced during the preseason. Leftwich believed he earned the starting job after his performance against the Dolphins and is anxious to find out.
"At this point you've got to make a decision," Leftwich said. "We all wanted a decision last week, but it didn't happen. I just hope I'm the guy."
Whether McCown winds up as the backup or the third-string quarterback behind rookie Josh Freeman, the team's 2009 first-round pick, remains to be seen. Freeman had his worst performance of the preseason with a 6-of-16 showing (37.5 percent) for 50 yards.
The only bright spot in Tampa Bay's passing game may have been wide receiver Maurice Stovall, who stepped up to catch six passes for 73 yards for Leftwich.
The running game, however, was a different story as Cadillac Williams saw his first action of the preseason and rushed for 54 yards on eight carries (6.8 avg.) as the team's starting running back. Williams ripped off an impressive 19-yarder in the first quarter. Earnest Graham was equally impressive with 39 yards on five carries (7.8 avg.), including a 27-yard run. Collectively, the Bucs rushed for 127 yards on 26 carries (4.9 avg.) against the Dolphins.
Tampa Bay's run defense once again proved to be stout, holding Miami to just 79 yards rushing on 25 carries (3.2 avg.). The defense started off hot with four straight three-and-outs against Miami's starting offense, and finished the game with two turnovers and five sacks, including four against Chad Henne in the second half.
After the game, the Bucs' unsettled quarterback situation was not the most concerning aspect of Tampa Bay's 10-6 loss for Morris. The rookie head coach pointed to 13 penalties that cost Tampa Bay 85 yards as the recipe for Thursday night's loss.
After the Buccaneers' first drive of the first quarter stalled at the Miami 47-yard line, running back Patrick Cobbs came free up the middle and deflected Dirk Johnson's punt. The ball touched Miami linebacker Charlie Anderson, which made it a live ball that Clifton Smith recovered for Tampa Bay.
On third-and-5 from the Miami 38, Williams shot through a hole behind left guard Jeremy Zuttah for a 19-yard gain. Dolphins safety Gabril Wilson made a touchdown-saving tackle at the Miami 19. After a 14-yard pass to Sammie Stroughter gave the Bucs a first-and-goal at the 5-yard line, Leftwich was sacked by defensive end Kendall Langford for a 12-yard loss and fumbled the ball. Tight end Kellen Winslow recovered the pigskin for the Buccaneers. Two plays later on third-and-11, Leftwich overthrew Brian Clark, who was open in the end zone. That brought out Mike Nugent for his first field goal attempt inside 45 yards this preseason. Nugent's 29-yard field goal was good and with 7:29 left in the first quarter, Tampa Bay led 3-0.
A 30-yard punt return by Smith gave Tampa Bay great starting field position from its own 35-yard line. Leftwich found Stovall open three times for 43 yards, including a pair of 21-yard catches to convert third-and-9 and third-and-11 situations. While Leftwich found a good rhythm with Stovall, he missed several open receivers on his first three drives, including Winslow on second-and-11 on the Miami 44. Winslow would have scored a touchdown had the pass been accurate. That missed opportunity drew loud boos from the Bucs fans at the stadium.
Despite Stovall's production, the drive stalled at the Miami 20-yard line when Leftwich's pass to running back Derrick Ward picked up only nine yards on third-and-16. On the first play of the second quarter, Nugent's 38-yard field goal attempt was good and Tampa Bay led 6-0 with 14:55. Miami ran just three plays in the first quarter.
McCown's first series saw him go 0-for-3 with a dropped pass and he got sacked twice. McCown's drive pushed reached the Miami 32 before consecutive sacks backed the Bucs up to the Miami 41. Earnest Graham broke off a 27-yard run on the drive and picked up 11 more yards on two carries, but the drive ended with a punt after McCown's pass on third-and-19 was dropped by Graham.
After a three-and-out that saw McCown take a 20-yard intentional grounding penalty, Miami picked up its initial first down of the game on its final drive of the second quarter when Chad Pennington hit receiver Brian Hartline for a 16-yard gain out to the Miami 47. On third-and-10, Ted Ginn hauled in a 19-yard pass for a first down to the Tampa Bay 34. Miami picked up another first down, but the drive stalled at the Tampa Bay 16 and out came Dan Carpenter for a field goal attempt. His 34-yarder was good and with four seconds left in the first half, Tampa Bay's lead was cut to 6-3.
Pennington remained in the game on Miami's initial possession of the second half and threw a 54-yard strike down the right sidelines to Hartline to the Tampa Bay 6. Cornerback Torrie Cox was beaten on Hartline's big play and then committed a defensive holding penalty on the next snap to give Miami a first-and-goal at the Tampa Bay 2. Pennington eluded three Buccaneers defenders to find tight end Anthony Fasano wide open in the end zone to cap off a five-play, 72-yard drive. With 12:15 left in the third quarter, Miami took a 10-6 lead.
McCown's next drive was stymied in part by three penalties on right guard Davin Joseph, the last of which was a false start penalty that contributed to Nugent's missed 51-yard field goal with 7:24 left. Nugent's 46-yard field goal attempt was nullified by the penalty.
McCown started the second half completing five straight passes for 38 yards, picking up two first downs through the air. But his last two pass attempts were incomplete, including a potential touchdown pass to Kelly Campbell that was a few inches out in front of the receiver. McCown's final pass came under heavy duress as the offensive line seemed to fall apart with him under center.
A promising Miami drive ended in a fumble when rookie defensive end Kyle Moore forced a fumble by running back Lex Hilliard. Safety Steve Cargile recovered for the Buccaneers at their 35-yard line with 12:03 left in the fourth quarter, but rookie quarterback Josh Freeman and the Bucs couldn't establish a drive.
Another turnover by the Bucs defense stymied another great Miami drive in the fourth quarter. Six plays after a 52-yard pass from Chad Henne to Greg Camarillo picked up 52 yards down to the Tampa Bay 24, Henne's pass for Camarillo on third-and-7 from the Tampa Bay 10 was picked off by defensive tackle Chris Bradwell at the 6 and returned 19 yards to the 25. But once again, Freeman couldn't drive the offense and Johnson was called in to punt for Tampa Bay.
The Bucs had numerous attempts to pull ahead in the fourth quarter, but Freeman and Tampa Bay's third-string offense could not sustain any drives.
PEWTERREPORT.COM PLAYER OF THE GAME
Wide receiver Maurice Stovall had a great night for the Bucs offense, catching a preseason-high six passes for 73 yards. Stovall was Byron Leftwich's go-to receiver and the two were clearly in sync on Thursday night.
Stovall came up big on third down, catching a pair of 21-yard passes in addition to an 18-yard grab to pick up three first downs. His receptions directly led to the Bucs getting two field goals on the board in the first quarter.
Stovall's performance tonight likely earned consideration for the Bucs' third receiver spot this year. He leads the team with 12 catches for 123 yards through three preseason games.
IT WAS OVER WHEN…
Tampa Bay's best chance to win the game came in the fourth quarter when Josh Freeman started a drive at the Buccaneers 24-yard line. Freeman completed his first four passes of the drive for 35 yards, leading the Bucs into Miami territory. But Freeman could not finish off the drive as his pass on fourth-and-10 from the Dolphins 47-yard line, which was intended for Marcus Maxwell, hit Miami cornerback Vontae Davis in the chest with 2:05 left in the fourth quarter. The Bucs trailed 10-6 and would not threaten after that.
STATS THAT COUNT
Defensive end Jimmy Wilkerson recorded his first sack of the preseason on Miami's first offensive play of the game. … Cornerback E.J. Biggers recorded his first sack of the preseason, sacking Henne for no yards. … Tampa Bay defensive end Louis Holmes recorded another sack and leads the Buccaneers with three during the preseason. … Defensive tackle Chris Bradwell had a big night with a sack, which was his second of the preseason, and an interception, which he returned 19 yards in the fourth quarter. … Safety Steve Cargile led the Bucs with six tackles and also had a fumble recovery. … Running back Derrick Ward rushed for three yards on four carries. … Rookie defensive tackle Rashaad Duncan had his first sack of the preseason. … Kicker Mike Nugent was 2-of-3 on field goal attempts against Miami and is now 4-of-7 in the preseason, and is now 1-of-3 from 50 yards or more.
THURSDAY'S STARTING LINEUPS
The announced Tampa Bay starting lineup for Thursday's game was as follows:
BUCS STARTING OFFENSE
WR Brian Clark
TE Kellen Winslow
LT Donald Penn
LG Jeremy Zuttah
C Jeff Faine
RG Davin Joseph
RT Jeremy Trueblood
WR Maurice Stovall
RB Cadillac Williams
FB B.J. Askew
QB Byron Leftwich
BUCS STARTING DEFENSE
LE Jimmy Wilkerson
DT Ryan Sims
DT Chris Hovan
RE Gaines Adams
WLB Geno Hayes
MLB Barrett Ruud
SLB Quincy Black
LCB Aqib Talib
RCB Ronde Barber
FS Jermaine Phillips
SS Sabby Piscitelli
MISSING IN ACTION
Here is a list of Tampa Bay players sitting out the Bucs' preseason opener:
RB Kareem Huggins (knee)
WR Antonio Bryant (knee surgery)
WR Dexter Jackson (ankle)
WR Michael Clayton (hamstring)
TE John Gilmore (calf)
FS Will Allen (shoulder)
SS Donte Nicholson (quad)
K Matt Bryant (hamstring)
BUCS IN-GAME INJURIES
Linebacker Adam Hayward suffered an ankle injury in the third quarter and did not return. That was the only Bucs injury on the night.
The announced attendance for the Buccaneers vs. Dolphins game at Raymond James Stadium was 63,386, but it looked like half that many fans were there. The kickoff temperature was 86 degrees under rainy skies. There were periodic thunderstorms throughout the game and lightning in the area caused a 45-minute delay.
The Buccaneers (1-2) face the Houston Texans (1-1) at Raymond James Stadium on September 4. Kickoff is set for 7:00 p.m. ET