A glimmer of hope
Rick Stroud, The St.Petersburg Times, published 9 October 2006

The kid was almost perfect. Rookie Bruce Gradkowski passed for 225 yards and two touchdowns against the Saints on Sunday, rallying the Bucs from behind and, perhaps, restoring hope for their season. It was all there.

Needing a field goal to tie, Gradkowski’s 38-yard pass to Ike Hilliard with 3:15 to play would have moved the Bucs to the Saints 3. In Gradkowski’s perfect world, it would have set up a winning touchdown, and the feel-good story would have had its happy ending. “We would’ve won,” Gradkowski said of his dream ending. “That’s what’s so hard to take about this. There’s no question in my mind we were going to win this game and we were going to roll.”

But for Gradkowski and the Bucs, there was no such luck. An offensive pass interference call against Joey Galloway erased Hilliard’s catch, helping preserve the Saints’ 24-21 win and dropping the Bucs to 0-4 for the second time in three seasons. “All I can say is it’s unfortunate,” Jon Gruden said of the penalty on Galloway. “That could’ve won us a football game.”

Instead, the rookie who will receive all of the attention from Sunday’s game is the Saints’ Reggie Bush, who returned a punt 65 yards for his first NFL touchdown with 4:17 left to give New Orleans the win. The Bucs remain at the bottom of the NFC South standings. But they might have found their quarterback of the future.

Just two weeks after starter Chris Simms sustained what could be a season-ending ruptured spleen, the Bucs were singing the praises of their sixth-round pick out of Toledo — and how he made their offense come to life. “I saw what you saw,” Gruden said of Gradkowski’s performance. “He is off to a very good start. It’s hard to lose. But there’s a lot of promise in that young guy. He played his brains out. He played one hell of a football game.”

Gradkowski completed 20 of 31 passes for 225 yards and two touchdowns. He connected with Galloway four times for 110 yards, including an 18-yard touchdown and 52-yard pass that set up Mike Alstott’s 1-yard touchdown run. In fact, Gradkowski’s 3-yard touchdown pass to Alex Smith on third and goal gave the Bucs a 21-17 lead with 10:03 left in the game.

But soon after, Bush, last season’s Heisman Trophy winner from Southern Cal, took over the game. Sensing a big moment was about to occur, he coaxed the raucous Superdome crowd into chants of Reg-gie! Reg-gie! Bush gathered the punt, stepped out of a potential tackle by Antoine Cash and headed down the right sideline, protected by a wall of blockers. “Once I turned that corner, I was just trying to turn on the jets,” Bush said. “It was so wide open, the slowest guy in the world probably could have scored that touchdown. The monkey’s off my back now.”

The Bucs might have overcome that play if not for the penalty on Galloway. “I’ll have to watch it on film,” Galloway said. “I’m coming inside, and Ike’s going outside. And I bumped into the (cornerback).”

Gruden was more diplomatic about the call. But he lit into officials with a tirade immediately after the play. He wasn’t alone. "I’ve heard people say that they’ve never seen it called in 10 or 15 years, but that’s not for me to talk about,” Hilliard said. “The fact of the matter is they called it. We didn’t get the play. Tough break for us.”

Ronde Barber said the play is common but a penalty is rarely called. “The guy jumped in (Galloway’s) face,” Barber said. “It happens every freaking game. I can’t tell you the ton of times it’s happened in games.”

While much of the pregame concern was about Gradkowski, it was the defense that let the Bucs down Sunday. Tampa Bay’s defenders — particularly safeties Jermaine Phillips and Will Allen — missed numerous tackles. The result were runs of 57 and 24 yards by Deuce McAllister, the second one for a touchdown. McAllister had 117 of his 123 rushing yards in the first half.

The tackling got so bad that Phillips was benched in the second quarter although he returned in the second half. “That’s why he has the name 'safety,’” Gruden said. “And when you miss a tackle, it’s a long run. A real painful experience.”

At least the Bucs left the Superdome on Sunday knowing Gradkowski is a player who can provide some help. And plenty of hope. “For his first start, to make that kind of impression on people that understand football is quite impressive,” Gruden said. “Not a lot of rookies have done what he’s done on the road against a good football team.”