On one critical drive, Garcia does it all right
On first down and ball game, no one was talking about the blood pouring out of Jeff Garcia's mouth anymore. Just the fire in his eyes.

This is when a quarterback is most important, when the game is still in doubt, when the possibilities hang in the air for either team to grasp. This is when a quarterback matters the most, when the momentum belongs to the opponent, when the field seems to tilt the other direction.

It was early in the fourth quarter, and the game felt all wrong. The Bucs held a seven-point lead, 10-3, but they had the look of a tug-of-war team losing ground. Every Rams possession seemed to drive deeper into Tampa Bay territory. Every Bucs possession seemed to self-destruct. To tell the truth, it looked a lot like trouble.

At which point, coach Jon Gruden put the game in the hands of Garcia. At which point, Garcia put the offense into the end zone.

Garcia was at his best Sunday when it mattered the most. In particular, it was his play in a six-play, 80-yard drive that stepped on the necks of the Rams. He was aggressive. He was efficient. And with every play, with every first down of the drive, Garcia and the Bucs seemed to erase a few more doubts. Think that drive looked good to you? Try looking at it through Garcia's eyes.

First play - First and 10, Tampa Bay 20: Garcia fakes a pitch, then throws a slant to Ike Hilliard, who gains 17 yards. Garcia: "It was a great play call by (Gruden). It was a play action, a slant to Ike. He did a great job of shaking the corner and creating room for a throw. I just put it in a place where he could make a play."

Give the Bucs credit for this. With the game on the line, they attacked. Considering how terribly the previous two possessions had gone - four plays for minus-6 yards, a fumble and a sack - you might have understood if the Bucs had gone into a shell and tried to attack the clock instead of the Rams. It's a perfectly logical point of view - losing coaches make it all the time. "We weren't going to let that slip away," Gruden said. "We have some guys capable of making some plays, too."

Good teams make these kinds of drives. Good teams know that crucial, winning drives don't just happen when you're behind. They happen when you have a chance to step on the neck of the opponent. The NFL is a fourth-quarter league, after all. Good teams have to win a half-dozen or so games in the final minutes.

And, yes, a couple of more like this, and you can call the Bucs a good team. "I did like that we attacked," said Garcia as he stood in a corridor of Raymond James Stadium after the game. "I felt like it was a time in the game where we needed to make some plays in the passing game."

Second play - First and 10, Tampa Bay 37: Garcia throws to Michael Pittman on the right side of the field. Pittman runs for 16 yards. Garcia: "I think we went into a formation where we moved players all over the field to create a little confusion. I saw they got into a soft zone where Pittman was matched up against their weakside linebacker. In a situation like that, you just let the man eat."

In three weeks, we seem to have learned this much about Garcia. By golly, the guy is contagious. The more competitive he is, the more competitive the Bucs appear to be. The more resilient he is, the more resilient the Bucs become.

Take Sunday. He got a fat lip when his helmet was knocked from his head, and the blood didn't bother him. It rained on him, and that didn't bother him, either. Michael Clayton dropped one pass and fumbled another, and Cadillac Williams fumbled, and none of that fazed him, either.

A year ago, any of those mistakes might have led to a collapse. Garcia doesn't seem to let that happen, though. He plays smart. He plays tough. He makes things look possible. And somehow, that seems to be spreading around the huddle.

Third play - First and 10, St. Louis 47: Garcia pitches to Earnest Graham, who runs right for 4 yards. Garcia: "Because of how they were bringing in their safeties, we felt we could stretch the field. We wanted to give Earnest some room to find a crease. He did a great job fighting for 4 yards."

Of all of the Bucs who deserve credit for winning Sunday, here is a face you might not recognize: Gruden. There is nothing wrong with a demanding coach. Nothing wrong with benching Clayton after a drop and a fumble. Nothing wrong with benching Williams in favor of Graham, either.

"Turning the team around and having more wins than last year?" Gruden said. "That's for losers. That's a losing coach talking. We want to win a championship, and we want to win one this year."

Fourth play - Second and 6, St. Louis 43: Garcia scrambles, looks around, then finds Pittman left for 15 yards. Garcia: "Joey (Galloway) was the No. 1 look in my progression. The offensive line was doing a great job letting me look through my progressions. Joey was my No. 1 look. I saw him get whacked, and then I saw Pittman breaking across the grain."

The trouble was, Galloway was hurt on the play. So here the Bucs are, with no Cadillac and no Galloway. And it didn't matter. For years, Graham has lingered around the sideline, making a play or two on special teams, waiting for a chance that never seemed as if it were going to come. Then it did. And as Gruden himself asked: "Why in hell hasn't this guy been playing?"

Fifth play - First and 10, St. Louis 28: Graham runs right, then breaks into the clear for 20 yards. Garcia:"That was a great play by the guys up front, the line, receivers, the tight end. And Graham did a great job of finding the crease."

By this point, the offense had found a rhythm. The offensive line was having its way with the Rams defensive line, which seemed to give up the fight. This, too, promises good things for the Bucs. As you know, the offensive line hasn't had its way on many afternoons.

Sixth play - First and goal, St. Louis 8: Graham runs right again, then fights through a defender for a touchdown. Garcia: "It was almost the same play we ran before. Our guys up front were crushing their guys. And Earnest made the great stiff-arm at the end."

After that, at 17-3, it was never a ball game. The Bucs went on to win 24-3, and all things seem possible. For all of the giddiness of the past two weeks, we still do not know how good this Bucs team can be. But we know that it has qualities that last year's team lacked. The defense is better. The offensive line is better.

Most of all, the quarterback is better. From here, it looks interesting.

Gary Shelton, The St.Petersburg Times 24 September 2007