Bucs' season continues its spiral in Black Hole
Rick Stroud, The St.Petersburg Times, published 27 September 2004

The end zone must be a very scary place, with skeletons and spikes, where dark, shadowy figures with painted faces lurk. It has been a black hole, all right, and it has nothing to do with where the Bucs are playing. FedEx Field, Raymond James Stadium or Network Associates Coliseum, it seems to matter not.

Tampa Bay's inept offense became the last in the NFL to score a touchdown Sunday night as the Bucs extended the streak to 11 quarters in a 30-20 loss to the Raiders. It took a former Raider to show the Bucs the way to the end zone in the Black Hole. Tim Brown, who spent 16 seasons in Oakland, caught a 16-yard touchdown from Brad Johnson with 10:45 left to make it 30-12. It was the 100th touchdown reception for Brown, who received a standing ovation after becoming only the fourth player to accomplish the feat.

Johnson, who was benched after 15 plays and an interception last week against the Seahawks, did little to cement his case as the Bucs starter. He also threw a 41-yard touchdown to Bill Schroeder after the game was decided. But Raiders cornerback Phillip Buchanon returned an interception of Johnson's pass intended for tight end Dave Moore 32 yards for a touchdown to break open the game early in the third quarter. "Probably in my wildest dreams, I never thought we would be 0-3," Johnson said. "I don't know if there's really an explanation for it. We fought hard. We gave ourselves a chance in every ballgame and just didn't come through. There were some breakdowns along the way, and tonight, they capitalized on them."

The loss, which spoiled Jon Gruden's return to the Black Hole, left the Bucs as one of only six winless teams in the league. It also marks the first time since 1996 the Bucs began the season with three defeats. As if things weren't tough enough for the Bucs on offense, running back Charlie Garner suffered a season-ending knee injury late in the first half.

Garner, 32, who signed a six-year, $20-million deal in March, took a handoff from Johnson sweeping right and tore the patellar tendon in his right knee trying to make a spin move. Garner had surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his left knee during the offseason. Another former Raider, tight end Rickey Dudley, broke his right thumb and left the game. When Garner left the game, the Bucs trailed in rushing yards 113-8. Running back Michael Pittman returns from his three-game suspension today. "I'm not going to make any projections about where we're going or what we're going to do," Gruden said. "Obviously, Pittman will become a key cog in what we're trying to get done."

The nationally televised game featured more than a rematch of the participants in Super Bowl XXXVII. It was a grudge match between former teammates, coaches and executives. In addition to Gruden and general manager Bruce Allen, the former Raiders senior assistant, Brown, Garner, Dudley and Matt Stinchcomb returned as former members of the Silver and Black.

The game also was emotional for Raiders defensive tackle Warren Sapp, who made seven Pro Bowl appearances in nine seasons with Tampa Bay. "I've always said I played big in big games, and I really have," Sapp said. "If I was on offense facing that defense, it would be something different because they would know everything about me. But Stinchcomb and Derrick Deese and those guys, I've never played with them, and I don't have any love for them. It was a matter of me calming my emotions."

Sapp failed to record a sack, but he pressured Johnson all night and turned in the defensive play of the game early in the first quarter. Garner took a swing pass from Johnson and ran down the rightside line for what looked like was going to be a long touchdown. But the 303-pound Sapp, displaying sheer hustle and rare speed, ran the 190-pound Garner down from behind after a 31-yard gain. The tackle prevented a touchdown and forced the Bucs to settle for the first of two field goals by Martin Gramatica. "We had a few words after he tackled Charlie," Derrick Brooks said of Sapp. "He got up and said, "I still can run.' He made a good play on that particular play. That's really the only words we had."

In addition to the troubles on offense, the Bucs defense was nearly as ineffective. Displaying poor tackling and leaving holes in the secondary, the Bucs gave up big plays to Raiders running back Tyrone Wheatley (18 carries, 103 yards and a touchdown) and receivers Rice, Joey Porter, Ronald Curry and Doug Gabriel. nOn the Raiders' first play from scrimmage, Tampa Bay's defense collapsed. Wheatley burst through a huge hole up the middle, slipped the tackles of Jermaine Phillips and Ronde Barber and raced 60 yards until he was chased down by safety Dwight Smith.

The Raiders broke open a tie game and took a 13-6 halftime lead when Curry took a screen pass from backup quarterback Kerry Collins and raced 19 yards before somersaulting into the end zone. Collins (16-of-27 for 228 yards, one touchdown and one interception) entered the game late in the first quarter after starter Rich Gannon sustained a concussion. On third and 7 from the Tampa Bay 7, Gannon could not locate an open receiver and headed upfield. But Gannon was banged helmet-to-helmet by Brooks. After getting up slowly, Gannon was taken to the locker room for X-rays on his back and did not return. Gruden probably wishes he didn't have to return to Oakland, either. "This was a very special place to me, and it was a great feeling,obviously, to come back here and play," he said. "I wasn't really treated very nicely, but I understand."

As for all the injuries on offense, Gruden tried to keep perspective. "It's part of life," Gruden said. "You've got to deal with adversity. Again, put things in perspective. We've got some adversity back in Florida. We've just got to do the best we can to rally around one another."