Making it official
Down the stretch of a tight game, Gene Steratore's officiating crew was involved in several controversial calls that helped shape the final outcome. "I think they were very meticulous with what they were trying to do," Saints rookie coach Sean Payton said. "I thought they did a good job, but of course when you're on the winning end of things, you're happy."

Four minutes into the final quarter, Gradkowski's fade pass to rookie WR Maurice Stovall was completed for an apparent 2-yard score. But the play was nullified by offsetting pass interference penalties against Stovall and CB Mike McKenzie. The Bucs went ahead 21-17 anyway on Alex Smith's 3-yard TD reception, but there were more flags to come.

Torrie Cox was called for a facemask penalty away from the play on Reggie Bush's decisive 65-yard punt return. The final blow came when Ike Hilliard's 38-yard catch to the 3-yard line in the final minutes was wiped out by an offensive pass interference flag against Joey Galloway for an illegal pick. "In 10 years, I've never seen that call," Ronde Barber said.

At 0-4, the Bucs are wondering what it will take to turn their luck around. "It was just one of those games," Simeon Rice said. "Every week it's something different, but one way or another, we're still finding ways to lose."

Follow the leader
Gradkowski's teammates were uniformly impressed with the poise and leadership skills displayed by the sixth-round pick out of Toledo. "He played his butt off," Barber said. "That kid won me over today. He played a great game and gave us a chance to win."

Facing a hostile environment, Gradkowski completed eight of 11 pass attempts in the final quarter. "That was a big-time performance," said WR Michael Clayton, who has gone 18 games without a TD catch. "Words can't explain what that guy meant to our team. He's a natural leader."

Finding paydirt
Until Bush's punt return, Smith's scoring catch with 10:03 remaining loomed as the game-winning TD. It also marked the first time the former Stanford tight end found the end zone since registering two TD receptions in his pro debut, at Minnesota in the 2005 season opener. "It felt real good at the time because it was the go-ahead score," Smith said. "They called my number and Bruce stuck with me."

Grand entrance
While Trueblood made his initial NFL start, first-round pick Davin Joseph saw his first action as a pro in a limited capacity. The rookie guard out of Oklahoma had been inactive the first three games because of a sprained knee, but he contributed a solid block on Mike Alstott's 1-yard scoring plunge. "It feels good to finally get out there," said Joseph, who played in goal-line situations and on some special teams. "It was a minimal role, but I'll take it."

Buc notes
Brian Kelly (turf toe) and LB Ryan Nece (knee) returned to the Tampa Bay defense after missing the Week 3 game against Carolina.

For the second time in four games, the Bucs defense failed to register a takeaway.

New Orleans now leads the all-time series against the Buccaneers, 18-11.

Sunday’s contest marked the 180th game played of Derrick Brooks’ career. He is three games shy of tying Paul Gruber for the franchise’s all-time record in that category.

The Bucs dipped into their bag of trick plays for the second straight week, once again finding success. After a flea-flicker worked for 23 yards against Carolina, a reverse to WR Michael Clayton picked up 27 yards against New Orleans in the second quarter. That was Clayton’s career-long carry and, at that point, the longest of the season for Tampa Bay.

Mike Alstott moved into third place on the Bucs’ all-time scoring list with his third-quarter touchdown run. The all-time leading touchdown producer in team history by a wide margin with 69, Alstott now has 420 career points, moving past K Donald Igwebuike (416). The only two players still ahead of Alstott are kickers Martin Gramatica (591) and Michael Husted (502).

Ira Kaufman, The Tampa Tribune 9 October 2006