Special teams come under scrutiny in loss
In his 172nd game as a professional, Tom Tupa experienced a unique ending. And it wasn't pretty. As Tampa Bay's 36-year-old punter prepared to boom an overtime kick out of his end zone in Sunday's season opener, he saw Saints veteran running back Fred McAfee burst through the line. Forced into an awkward improvisation, Tupa watched helplessly as his attempted left-handed toss was intercepted by rookie linebacker James Allen for the winning touchdown in a 26-20 loss to New Orleans. ``I saw some guy right in my face and I tried to pull the ball down,'' Tupa said. ``If I'm tackled there, it's a safety and the game's over anyway. My right arm was wrapped up, so I had to do what I could with my left hand. That's a first for me.''
Tupa, a quarterback and punter at Ohio State, has completed 259 passes in a 14-year NFL career, but this was his first left-handed attempt. McAfee, voted special teams captain by the Saints last season, said he beat Bucs tight end Todd Yoder off the snap. ``We had a lot of field position in the overtime, so it never should have come down to that play,'' said Tupa, who averaged 43.9 yards on eight punts, placing two inside the New Orleans 20.
Even Saints coach Jim Haslett marveled at the sudden ending. ``If you are in the league long enough, you will see everything,'' he said. ``I can't remember anything like this ... and I've been in some crazy games.''
With Tampa Bay's offense sputtering for much of the opener, Tupa had a busy day. He also held for Martin Gramatica's four field-goal attempts, including a hurried 40- yarder as time expired in regulation. ``Obviously, we practice that play and the guys did a great job with the clock winding down,'' Bucs first-year special teams coach Richard Bisaccia said. ``We had momentum in overtime and our defense was playing great. Then we had a breakdown - and that starts with me. I won't know for sure what happened until we look at the films, but their guy was in there fast. It wasn't Tupa's fault. He did a great job all day pinning them back.''
Gramatica's 52-yard field goal early in the second quarter pulled Tampa Bay within 6-3, but his 47-yard try just before the half was blocked by 6- foot-3 defensive end Darren Howard. After missing wide left on a 53-yard attempt three plays into the fourth quarter, Gramatica converted under intense pressure to forge a 20-20 tie and force overtime. ``Tom found a good spot for me and I got it through,'' said Gramatica, who ran onto the field with 15 seconds remaining in regulation and the clock ticking. The ball was struck with four seconds left and went through the uprights as time expired.
Gramatica almost had an opportunity to kick a game- winner on Tampa Bay's opening possession of overtime. The Bucs reached the New Orleans 39 and Coach Jon Gruden told Tupa to punt instead of calling on Gramatica to attempt a 56-yard field goal. Gramatica kicked a 65-yarder at Kansas State and his longest NFL field goal is a 55- yarder against Detroit in 2000. ``I told Coach Gruden I was ready,'' Gramatica said, ``but the breeze was in our face and it was the right thing to do.''
Tupa didn't know if he would be dispatched as a punter or a holder. ``That was a 'tweener call,'' he said. ``The way our defense was playing, I understand why we punted.''