This day was supposed to belong to Bruce Gradkowski, the rookie who fate has entrusted with resuscitating a fast-fading Bucs season. And there were times Sunday when it looked as if it would be his day.
In the end, though, this day belonged to another rookie, the one who was drafted 192 places ahead of Gradkowski, the one who fate has entrusted with resuscitating a forever-woeful Saints franchise. His name is Reggie Bush. A few months back, everyone thought he'd wind up in Houston. When the Texans passed on him, the Saints pounced. More than ever Sunday, the Bucs were wishing they hadn't. Gradkowski, too.
"This is a hard one to swallow," Gradkowski said after Bush produced the game-winning points in a 24-21 Saints victory by returning a fourth-quarter punt 65 yards for a touchdown. "I mean, we played our tails off."
Gradkowski "played his brains out." That's how Jon Gruden saw it, anyway. Who can argue? In his first NFL start, one played in front of a Superdome crowd that included about a dozen family members, he virtually was flawless. His only glaring error came on a play in which he ran out of bounds and took a sack instead of throwing the ball away. He also lost a fumble while being sacked, but the rest of his outing only could be described as promising.
In a hostile environment, with another rookie guarding his front side, Gradkowski completed 20 of 31 passes for 225 yards and two touchdowns, the second of which brought the Bucs back from a fourth-quarter deficit. He nearly brought the Bucs back a second time in the fourth quarter, but a 37-yard soft toss to Ike Hilliard to the Saints 3 was called back after officials ruled wideout Joey Galloway guilty of interfering with a defender. "It stinks that [penalty] got called on Joey," Gradkowski said of Galloway, who ran a basketball-like pick play to help free up Hilliard. "At that point, just let the guys play."
Galloway said he couldn't make an accurate judgment of the officials' ruling until he saw tape of the play. He didn't need to see any tape to offer a judgment on Gradkowski, though.
Like most everyone else in what was yet another quiet Bucs locker room, the veteran wide receiver said he was wowed by the effort turned in by the sixth-round draft pick out of Toledo.
"I don't think we could have asked any more out of him," said Galloway, who caught four of Gradkowski's passes, including one for a touchdown. "He handled the huddle well, handled the snap well and made some big plays."
One of the biggest came at the end of the Bucs' first drive, when Gradkowski hit Galloway with an 18-yard touchdown pass on second-and-10. There was another play leading up to that one, though, that was equally impressive. On second-and-long, he dumped a pass to Michael Pittman, who gained 23 yards on Gradkowski's first throw of the game.
In addition, he threw a 52-yard strike to Galloway on second-and-short, completed several throws for first downs on third-down plays and ran six times for 19 yards.
"There's a lot of promise in that guy," Gruden said. "I mean, he played one hell of a football game. He was very impressive. He made some great audibles, and I really liked everything about him."
Gruden couldn't say the same about his defense - again. In another phase of what seems to be an irreversible trend, the defense's inability to take players down during initial contact proved costly.
It was especially costly during the first half, which more or less belonged to Saints running back Deuce McAllister. For the fourth time in his career, McAllister ran for more than 100 yards against the Bucs. He finished with 123, but 117 came in the first half - 57 on one play in which at least three Bucs missed tackle opportunities and 24 more on his lone touchdown run.
"It's the same old story," safety Jermaine Phillips said of the poor tackling that has plagued the defense this season. "We know we've got to correct it. We know we're better than that."
Gruden was counting on the defense being better Sunday. In fact, with a rookie running his offense, he told his defense early in the week that the Bucs' hopes for the season may depend on the unit being better. He did that during meetings in which he tried to spur the defense by showing them tape of several defensive stalwarts, including the 2005 Bears, who kept their team in the playoff race while rookie Kyle Orton ran the offense.
On Sunday, though, the Bucs defense fell well short of Gruden's expectations. Though it got tougher against the run in the second half, allowing just 15 yards on nine carries, it still couldn't come up with the big plays it needed.
"That's an understatement," Gruden said when asked if poor tackling was a problem again. "When the ball is getting to the second level, we've got to take a look at that. That's our last line of defense. But the story today was really the Reggie Bush punt return and McAllister's running in the first half. Our young quarterback did a heck of a job bringing our team back, but Bush lived up to his expectations today and made a great play. Shame on us."
Roy Cummings, The Tampa Tribune 9 October 2006