Who says you can't take anything from preseason games? As it turns out, the preseason was an accurate barometer of precisely where the Bucs were entering the regular season.
During their 1-3 run during the exhibition season, the Bucs' first-team offense struggled, while the first-team defense dominated.
And that's exactly what happened Sunday during their regular-season opener against Baltimore at Raymond James Stadium. The similarities didn't end there, either. Before the 27-0 loss to the Ravens was in the books, the RJS stands virtually were void of fans, and rookie quarterback Bruce Gradkowski was running the offense.
The difference, aside from the fact this game counted, was that Gradkowski showed none of the magic and ability to rally the team that made him the darling of the preseason.
After completing 45 of 61 passes for 511 yards and five touchdowns during practice games, Gradkowski completed just one of five passes for 4 yards against the Ravens.
What was most disturbing, though, was that starter Chris Simms wasn't any better. He completed 17 of 29 passes, but the completions went for only 133 yards. He also was picked off three times, with each leading to Ravens points.
Not only that, but in something eerily reminiscent of the preseason, Simms had three passes batted by linemen or linebackers. All that added up to a 30.5 passer rating that, like the preseason, didn't match Gradkowski's mark (39.6). Make no mistake, though: Simms is still the starting quarterback. Bucs coach Jon Gruden, who was shut out for only the second time as a head coach, made that clear.
Gruden also made it clear that a lot of what went wrong offensively Sunday was because of poor play up front, where injuries to starting guards Dan Buenning and Davin Joseph forced the Bucs to go with a makeshift line. "Their blitz scheme got us a few times and put us behind in the down-and-distance situation," Gruden said. "There was a lot of penetration up the middle and we weren't able to do a good enough job shutting that down."
The Bucs' receiving corps was handed a good share of the blame as well. That unit was responsible for three dropped passes that derailed the offense early on and it did not excel at finding openings in the Ravens defense. "We just didn't do a good enough job overall in the game of giving our quarterback a chance to step up in the pocket and find some down-the-field throws," Gruden said.
Nor did the Bucs do a very good job of running the ball. After averaging just 3.6 yards per carry during the preseason, they gained an average of just 2 yards per carry Sunday against Baltimore.
Of course, the Bucs really didn't try to run the ball very much in this one. They had 13 rushing tried, including eight by Cadillac Williams, who left the game with back spasms.
"We didn't execute up front at all," left tackle Anthony Davis said. "We have a hell of a receiving corps, a hell of a quarterback and a hell of a running back and we didn't give any of them a chance to do anything."
Though he clearly was let down by the players around him, Simms wasn't about to throw the blame on them. Instead, he accepted his share and threw credit toward the Ravens, too.
"They just put it to us," Simms said. "Our defense gave us chances to get back in the game, but I made mistakes and we got a little unlucky. Plain and simple, they just whipped our butts."
The whipping began on the first drive of the game. The Ravens followed up the opening kickoff by marching 80 yards in 14 plays and taking a 7-0 lead on a 4-yard Jamal Lewis run.
It was the first time in franchise history the Ravens scored on their season-opening drive, but it was the last time the Ravens put together a drive of that nature Sunday.
Their second touchdown came off Chris McAlister's 60-yard return of an underthrown Simms pass and their third came at the end of a 61-yard drive that was set up by Ed Reed's interception of a Simms pass.
In between the second and third touchdowns were a pair of Matt Stover field goals, including one that was set up by tackle Haloti Ngata's 60-yard return of a Simms pass that was tipped near the line by linebacker Bart Scott. "Some of the batted balls, again, weren't all his fault," Gruden said of Simms. "There were people in his face. But he also made a couple of decisions that I think he regrets."
The defense's only real regret was that opening drive. After that, the Ravens gained just 191 yards. But by the time that first drive was done, the tone of the game had been set.
"They got off to a better start than we did," defensive end Simeon Rice said. "For some reason we were flat at the beginning. We came back, but sometimes your emotions aren't right at the beginning. That's what happened."
The start wasn't the kind the Bucs are accustomed to. They like to start fast in games and this was one in which they stumbled. Now they're hoping that stumble doesn't lead to a fall.
"This gives us a sample of where we are as a football team right now, but we have to keep everything in perspective," Rice said. "We know it's not going to get easier, but we have 15 games left to play. This was only a speed bump."
Roy Cummings, The Tampa Tribune 11 September 2006