Sunday, October 22, 2006

The greatest game I've ever witnessed. Period.

The Bucs survive a 4th quarter collapse and beat the Eagles on a historic FG at the horn, 23-21. It was one of those magical games that will be talked about, replayed, and debated over for decades to come. It was one of the greatest football games played in the NFL in recent memory, with two terrific comebacks, one by each team, and it had a cardiac finish that left spectators in a state of shock & disbelief as they swarmed out of Raymond James Stadium.
And I was there to witness it all.
But I'm still not quite sure if what I witnessed was real, because it all unfolded in a hazy state of sunstroke & dehydration that nearly made me black out at one point (no lie.) But from what I do remember, and what I did see, the Bucs won a football game that they had no business winning in the first place, but after they thought they had it won they didn't want to let it go.

The day started innocently enough, tailgating in the 90 degree heat and enjoying a few pregame libations. Only under these conditions are you allowed to pour beer on pork and not get a disgusted look from the people you are serving. My buddy JT, the owner of the fabulous seats we were sitting in, prepared the pregame meal while we all wondered how great it would be to send the Eagles home with a loss today. There were plenty of Eagle fans spread throughout the area, though not like the old days when 25,000+ Green & Gold-clad Packer fans would take over the Old Sombrero.

We made our way to the radio station party house across from Ray Jay for one last pit stop & you could feel something in the air, something that would say this could be the Bucs day. Or maybe it was just the funny feeling I got from sampling a horrendous offering of a disgusting beverage called pumpkin beer! Either way it was shaping up to be a great day, despite the sweltering conditions. Yup, this is Florida in October folks. While the rest of the country is getting the flannel PJs, scarfs and longjohns out of storage we are busting out the sunblock, protective headwear and mist machines. As we headed to our seats (which, as I have mentioned before, are 5 rows from the field in the south end zone on the goal line) there was a buzz in the stadium that made me think this could be the Bucs day. Or maybe it was that damn pumpkin beer again.

As the teams prepared for the kickoff, JT & I settled in and realized we had numerous Eagle fans scattered around us, and we knew it would be a long day, for one of the groups, either way. This being close to Halloween, some of the more "colorful" Phily fans even decided to wear costumes.

Luckily our seats provided other views to keep our attention focused away from those whack-jobs.

The game began it was looking doubtful the Bucs were going to have a shot at winning it. The Eagles started by marching the ball down the field the Bucs as the Buc defense sat idly by, until it was time to buckle down-in the red zone. That would be a theme all day for the Buc defense- bend but don't break- as they allowed a mind-boggling 506 yards of total offense (to their 196) but forced 4 turnovers that would keep them in the game. The first turnover came on this drive after the Eagles had moved it to the Bucs 24. But a fumble recovery by Torrie Cox gave Tampa Bay the ball back and they had dodged their first bullet of the day. The teams would then trade
futile drives in a game of "I can't score" that was making the people who had paid good money (or even those of us who got in for free) furious with sweaty rage. It was nauseating football at its finest. The Bucs repeatedly tried to establish Caddy Williams (23atts, 82yds) and the running game, and Philly kept driving the length of the field and turning the ball over.
Much-maligned Buc CB Juron Bolden stymied a Philly drive with just under 4:00 to go in the first quarter, and that would be a harbinger of things to come for Don & his mates. After a scoreless first quarter it looked like it would be more of the same in the 2nd. The teams continued to jab and punch at each other with no significant damage being done. Until Ronde Barber stepped into the fray. That's when things got exciting.

With the Eagles starting another drive McNabb dropped back to pass to Hank Baskett (I think that's his dad, Michael Myers, above) at their own 33yd line. But up stepped Ronde, who read the play perfectly, and he scampered untouched into the end zone for the go-ahead score, 7-0. Let me tell you it was as loud as I have heard Ray jay, and that is saying something. There is something about Philly Fan that just brings out the venom in other people. Oh yeah, maybe it's because they hate & disrespect every other team & their fans. As the noise died dowwn Philly attempted another drive only to have McNabb fumble the ball & recover it. The teams would trade punts for the rest of the half, although the Bucs had a chance to go for a field goal as the half ended. After totally mismanaging the clock (passing on 3rd down instead of running to gain more yardage for a FG? C'mon Chucky, smarten up) they decided to punt the ball because Gruden didn't thing Matt Bryant could kick a 53 yarder. Boy would he be proven wrong.

The second half started and brought more of the same. That would be more of Philly driving the ball and more of Ronde returning it for a score. After a long Buc drive (14 plays, 58 yards in 8:05) resulted in a 30-yd Bryant FG & a 10-0 Tampa Bay lead, Philly went back to work. And so did Ronde. A 17-yard pass to Baskett got them over midfield, McNabb dropped back and tried to hit WR Greg Lewis with a short pass. Not so fast my friend. Ronde jumped the route on this one too and raced 66 yards for the score that nearly brought the house down. (Note:This is the point that I nearly blacked out. Literally. As we were all jumping, screaming, high-fiving, and berating Philly Fan, all of a sudden everything started to go black around me. Things got real quiet, like I was in a dream. Then the noise disappeared completely, the light disappeared completely, and I felt as if I was being transported to another dimension. But I was actually thinking at the time: "Oh my god, this is what it means to black out. I'm going to collapse right here in the 5th row of Sec. 126 and not only embarrass myself & JT but miss the rest of this game. Shit." As soon as it came,though, it departed, leaving me with a funny feeling and a splitting headache. Must have been the pumpkin beer.) Anyway, the Bucs kicked the point while I was free-falling through the afterlife, and the score was a miraculous 17-0 Tampa Bay. Wow.
The Eagle fans still tried to talk smack, but there is no comeback for "SCOREBOARD!"

But this being the 2006 Bucs this game was far from over. And the Tampa Bay defense that had bent all day was about to be broken in a bad way. Before you could say Vince Papale the Eagles mounted an 8 play, 79-yard drive culminating in a 12 yard TD pass from McNabb to someone named Thomas Tapeh (who?!) for a break-the-seal score that would be the beginning of a wild finish at the New Sombrero. As the fourth quarter began with the Bucs leading 17-7 it wouldn't take long for Philly to make the Bucs fans squirm in their already sweat-soaked seats. McNabb immediately led the Eagles downfield, highlighted by 56 yards of running from Brian Westbrook. Now you have to understand I had been giving a boatload of crap to every Eagle fan I had seen that day wearing Westbrook's #36 jersey: "Hey, Westbrook, I see you're not playing again today." Or, "Hey, Brian, why aren't you on the field-injured again?" You know, intelligent stuff like that. Well this was now payback time, as the Westbrook-clad fan next to me began giving me a healthy taste of my own medicine. And little did I know, that was just the beginning of it.

Now the score is 17-14 with just under 9:00 to go, and it was more than a little nerve-wracking time. But Gradkowski (remember him? hard to with these numbers:13-26, 104yds) lead the Bucs on a 48 yard drive that was greatly aided by 2 unsportsmanlike conduct flags on Philly DE (and Miamai alum) Jerome McDougal, one on a flagrant face mask of the Rocket and then another freebie for punting the flag like a football. Thanks, Jerome; I see that all the controversy surrounding your alma mater has helped you try to become a better person. That fortunate turn of events led to a 44-yard FG that made it 20-14 with just under three minutes to go. The Bucs had this one in the bag, right? Wrong again.

All Tampa Bay had to do was go into that dreaded but (sometimes) effective prevent defense. You know, don't let anyone get behind you for a score, keep all the plays in front of you. Evidently the Bucs didn't practice this form of defense enough as Philly would mount a soul-crushing drive that nearly took every last gasp of the thick, muggy air out of the stadium and every Tampa Bay fan in it. On 3rd & 1 from Philly's 29 the Bucs needed a stop to force a crucial 4th down play. They didn't get one as Westbrook rushed for 1 yard to keep the chains moving.

Two minute warning. Just hold them for the next 2 minutes and the Bucs would have a confidence-building win over a powerhouse NFC team. But these are the Bucs, whose defense is now older than the average age of the residents in Pinellas County. After a couple of short gains and a penalty the Eagles were faced with 3rd and 6 from their 48. And what happened next will be remembered for a long time to come in Tampa and Philly. McNabb threw a short dump pass to Westbrook in the flat, and he knew he had to break some tackles to make something happen. 55 missed tackles later Westbrook raced down the sideline to the end zone, and with tacklers left in his wake scored an improbable, mind-numbing, heart-stopping TD that gave Philly a 21-20 lead with just :33 seconds left in the game. Oh no, say it ain't so. The once raucous crowd sat in stunned silence while every Philly fan that had suffered through 3+ hours of abuse let loose with a string of invectives that could not be repeated in this family blog. All well deserved, I might add. Well except for the part about our grandmothers.

It was at this point that JT decided it was time to go. There are two types of people that attend sporting events: the "let's leave early to beat the traffic" types, and the "I'm staying until the very end no matter what" types. My buddy JT, God bless him, is the former. Now what would the difference be in leaving :33 seconds early, especially when there was a chance, albeit a slight one, that the Bucs could still win the game? I reluctantly left our seats, with Westbrook fan simultaneously high-fiving and laughing at me at the same time. But I slowly made my way up the steps and lost JT somewhere along the way. Darn. I'll just have to set up shop in the standing area at the rails in the far end zone to see if the Bucs had a snowballs chance in Tampa to pull this one out.

And then a funny thing happened. The Bucs came out acting like they were going to try and win it. An 11 yard pass to Michael Clayton and a Gradkowski scramble for 9 yards made it 2nd & 1 from their own 44. An incomplete pass to Clayton & timeout later left them with :03 seconds on the clock and an improbable 62 yard FG attempt to win it. From my vantage point it looked like Bryant was kicking it from another area code. No way he makes this I'm thinking to myself as I stood there glued to the rail to find out for myself. The kick went up, and up, and it went long, and longer, and after what seemed like 30 seconds of hangtime landed through the uprights for a game-winning 62 yard field goal, the 3rd longest in NFL history & 2nd longest to win a game.
Matt, you under there?

Unbelieveable. I was there to witness history. Although I don't know if my buddy was. For all I knew he was back at his truck listening to it on the radio. But as I high-fived every Buc fan in sight and ripped every Philly fan within shouting distance I raced out the stadium exhausted, hungover, and near the verge of passing out. But boy was I happy. except for an awful aftertaste of pumpkin in my mouth.

"Nan na na na, hey hey hey, goodbye" Repeat.

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