0 and Fourlorn
Rick Stroud, The St.Petersburg Times, published 4 October 2004

Weaving through the crowd blocking his path, he finally spotted the player he had targeted all afternoon. Making contact at midfield, John Lynch threw his arms around Mike Alstott and squeezed his former teammate in a heartfelt hug. It wasn't the first time Lynch embraced the A-Train during the Broncos' 16-13 win against Tampa Bay on Sunday.

In his emotional homecoming at Raymond James Stadium, Lynch made consecutive critical stops on the Bucs' running back (on second and 3 and third and 1) during the third quarter, smelling those plays the way a Doberman sniffs a porterhouse. "You can't block them all, and I happened to be the one left free," Lynch said. "I knew you don't want to sit back and wait on Mike, so I just tried to get him in the backfield. And I felt like a rodeo guy trying to take the big bull down."

While it wasn't the Bucs' last chance to win their first game of the season, it might have been their best. With the score tied, Tampa Bay ended that possession at its 42 and its last three at its 49, Denver's 48 and its 9. And it had the ball for only 1:40 of the fourth quarter.

After stopping Alstott, the Broncos, with help from a pass-interference penalty on safety Dwight Smith, drove nearly the length of the field to set up Jason Elam's winning 23-yard field goal. The Bucs, who fell to 0-4 for the seventh time in team history, had just two possessions during the fourth quarter. The final came after Denver ate all but three seconds of the final 7:26 of the game.

Cut adrift by the Bucs after 11 seasons and five Pro Bowl appearances, Lynch was greeted during introductions with a standing ovation lasting for nearly a minute. He said he was relieved after getting the vindication and victory he came looking for. "(Saturday) night, to be honest, I didn't sleep a wink," Lynch said. "I don't know if I was that nervous at the Super Bowl. I didn't know what to expect. But I knew one thing: that was about coming down here and winning a football game."

Lynch finished with seven tackles and a pass defensed, but it was his missed tackle that allowed Tampa Bay to score its only touchdown. Michael Clayton scored on a 51-yard pass from Brad Johnson after Lynch believed he had touched the rookie down after he fell at the 20. Two weeks ago, Lynch was fined $7,500 for a hit on Chiefs receiver Dante Hall and could have taken a shot on Clayton. This time, it cost the Broncos a touchdown. "It's a shame," Lynch said. "The responsibility relies on me there that I have to tackle him, I guess. But there is a new league emphasis that if you hit them while they're lying down, you'll be penalized 15 yards. So I tried to do the right thing for the first time in my career and tried to keep Gene Washington (the league's director of football operations and in charge of discipline) out of my pocket. I got burned on it."

Right now, it's the Bucs' season that's in flames. Wasting another good defensive effort, they made critical mistakes down the stretch to foil excellent field position. Smith's interference penalty on Ashley Lelie, coming with Denver backed up at its 13, cost Tampa Bay 37 yards and moved the Broncos to midfield. Elam capped an 84-yard drive with his field goal with 9:03 left.

The Bucs' first possession in the fourth quarter began at its 45 after a 44-yard kickoff return by Jamel White. They pinned the Broncos at their 10 after going three-and-out but essentially never saw the ball again. Tampa Bay would have gotten the ball back just after the two-minute warning, needing a field goal to tie. Jake Plummer threw an incompletion on third and 3 from the Bucs 42. But nose tackle Chartric Darby jumped offside, giving the Broncos a first down and a chance to run out the clock. "It was a tragic penalty, obviously," said Jon Gruden, whose team has lost six straight dating back to last season. "You have a chance to get the ball back with time on the clock. The hard count in that situation is something you work on every day. You expect it in that situation. What can I say? We've got to do a better job. It's a game of field position. Denver did a good job offensively of getting out of trouble and converting some key third downs. I thought the pass-interference call was real big in the game. If you knock the ball off your own goal line twice on the road, it's very hard to do."

As for the consecutive stops of Alstott, Gruden said they had little to do with Lynch's familiarity of the Bucs offense. In fact, the second came on an all-out blitz teams normally deploy on the goal line. "Not that play, we hadn't run it," Gruden said. "John Lynch is going to make some plays. It'll be a good story you can tell tomorrow, but John Lynch is going to make plays in short-yardage situations around the line of scrimmage. It's one of the reasons why he's been a five- or six-time Pro Bowl player."

After the game, Lynch said he hurt for his former teammates. Gruden went with a youth movement. In addition to starting Clayton for Tim Brown, he replaced veteran free-agent right guard Todd Steussie with Kenyatta Walker during the second quarter. Clayton had four catches for 91 yards, and Michael Pittman, in his first game after a three-game suspension, replaced injured running back Charlie Garner and rushed 15 times for 72 yards. None of it mattered.

For the second straight Sunday, a former Buc got the last laugh. Last week, it was the Raiders' Warren Sapp, who was fast enough to catch Garner from behind. Now Lynch, who was told he would fail the Bucs' physical after offseason neck surgery and said he never was offered a new contract. Saints running back Aaron Stecker can hardly wait for next week. "It's pretty deep. Not many people on this team have ever been 0-4," Johnson said. "I've never been 0-2. It's a different experience. The thing about it, you've got to keep fighting. You've got to have a lot of grit about yourself. You hate it for us, the players, for everything we're going through. You hate it for the fans. It's something we've got to stick together and keep fighting."