Sunday, October 08, 2006

Bucs, Gradkowski lose a heartbreaker, 24-21 to Saints

In a game he wasn't supposed to be in, in front of 69,000 football starved fans whose team had played 1 home game after a 23 week hiatus, against a quality 3-1 team, new Tampa Bay QB Bruce Gradkowski almost pulled off the improbable. The rookie from Toledo nearly led the win-starved Bucs to their first victory of the season with a spectacular performance by someone seeing his first regular season NFL game action. The Rocket (the nickname of his college team and his arm) opened a lot of eyes around the league with these numbers: 20-31, 225 yds, 2TDs, n0 INTs, 1 fumble. But more important than the numbers was the way the kid played- with poise, confidence, and a little bit of swagger.

Oh, plus he can run. With the ball.
You heard me correctly, the Bucs have a QB who can run the ball.
Just let it sink in, it takes a while to register.

But it was Gradkowski's arm, and brain, that were the reason that the Bucs were even in this game, especially when the new kid in the huddle guided the team to a touchdown on their opening drive. With a steady dose of the Caddy (his 111 yds nearly matched his 3 game season total), who ran 4 times for 20 yards, and a 23-yd pass to Pittman mixed in, the Bucs marched from their 39 to the Saints 18 just 4 minutes into the game. Then Gradkowski started his conversion of believers: he passed to Joey Galloway on the left side of the end zone for an 18- yard score, obviously the first of Gradkowski's career, but certainly not the last. But more importantly the Bucs got an opening score that put pressure on the Saints and made a statement that even though they were undermanned & under the gun, the Bucs would not go quietly in this game.

The Saints would not go quietly either, and QB Drew Brees and RB/WR/KR Reggie Bush were determined not to let this game slip away after last weeks' disappointing loss in Carolina. Later in the 1st Brees guided the Saints on an 83-yd scoring drive, highlighted by a 57-yd run by Deuce don't you forget about me McAllister that ended in a FG when Ernie Conwell dropped a short, bullet TD pass right in the front of the end zone. Before the half New Orleans would get on the TD board when the Deuce romped up the middle for a 24-yd score, and the Saints held a 10-7 lead at the half.

Tampa Bay moved the ball down the field on their opening possession of the 2nd half but got nothing out of it. On their second drive Gradkowski made really his only 'rookie mistake'- on 2nd & 9 from their own 32 Gradkowski was hit from behind and coughed up the ball on a sack by DE Charles Grant, who terrorized rookie RT Jeremy Trueblood all day. The Saints turned that turnover into a touchdown to Conwell just 4 plays later, and at 17-7 with 5 minutes to go in the third it looked like that would be all she wrote. Pack it in time, right?
Well a funny thing happened on the way to an embarrassing blowout: Gradkowski & the Bucs didn't roll over and play dead. Instead they got rolling and played some gritty ball, a promising sign in this lost season lacking in such things. On the ensuing drive Gradkowski got the tight ends involved, hitting Alex who? Smith for 12 and Anthony Becht for 13. With the ball at their own 46, Gradkowski then unleashed his rocket (so to speak), hitting Galloway for a 52-yd pass that was a thing of beauty for its speed and accuracy. Two plays later Mike Alstott took it in from the 2 and it was a ballgame again, 17-14 after 3 quarters. On their first possession of the 4th the Bucs had a TD taken off the board when rookie receiverMaurice Stovall was called for offensive PI on his apparent TD catch. No worries for the cool kid, as Gradkowski hit Alex Smith for a 3-yd score 2 plays later and the Bucs had a 20-17 lead with 10 minutes to go.

But it wouldn't be long before the Saints unleashed their not-so-secret weapon; maybe you've heard of him, Mr. Reggie Bush, Heisman Trophy-winning Trojan who beat teams with his abilty to run, catch, and return the rock. Bush had been having a less-than-stellar debut season (no TDs, no room to run) and was frustrated for most of the day by the Bucs D, which played much better than in recent weeks. But like all great players, you can only keep them down for so long. Unfortunately for the Bucs, it wasn't long enough. After a 3 & out by the Bucs (how redundant is that) Josh Bidwell booted a 45yd-er to the saints 35; Reggie then did what Reggie lives to do: he took the ball on the left, skipped over to the right side, broke a couple of tackles and sailed in for a game-breaking, highlight reel-making 65-yd game winning touchdown. Game, set, match, and all the good work Gradkowski, Caddy, Galloway and the rest of the Bucs had done was erased. By an electric play from an electric playmaker.

Even though the Bucs lost this game, they learned a lot about themselves and their team. They learned that they can compete in this division with the best of them, and although they get down they never give up fighting.
Chris Simms embodied that attitude as he took a spleen for the team in a tough loss to Carolina.
Now Gradkowski has the reigns, and exhibited those same qualities in this tough loss to New Orleans.
But by the time Simms is ready to return you might need to remove a vital organ from the Rocket of Toledo to get him off the field as well.

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