Bucs Still Questionable After Losing A Winnable Game
They don't have a 5-0 offense. Or a 5-0 quarterback. Or, judging by Sunday, a 5-0 mind-set. That'll get you 4-1 every time. Reality has caught up with the Bucs. The reality that says this season's team isn't much different from last season's without Cadillac Williams. The reality that wonders how much confidence Jon Gruden has in Brian Griese when the coach orders a third-and-12 toss sweep. Without the Caddy, the Bucs go back in time. And record.

Sunday was a perfectly dreary end to a perfect season that was never perfect, a 14-12 loss to the decimated, desperate New York Jets. Sunday was four Bucs field goals without one shot taken at the end zone. Sunday was conservative, cautious. Sunday played it safe. And lost.

Sunday reminded us, again, of Griese's uncanny ability to look like a 1-4 quarterback on a 4-1 team, make a horrible play at a horrible time, personally give the Jets momentum and somehow start a QB controversy on a division leader. How do you come in second against old, old Buc Vinny Testaverde, who was a backup at the signing of the Declaration of Independence? Vinny won from the graveyard. Suddenly, the quick-start Bucs are mortal.

Granted, Sunday didn't lose a season. Not even close. That's reality, too. "It's 16 games. This didn't knock us out of nothing. This didn't do nothing bad to us," said Bucs all-Groundhog Day defensive tackle Kenyatta Walker, who again saved a Griese interception from a certain touchdown. In his spare time, Walker plays on the Bucs offensive line.

The defense, while not at its sharpest, played well enough to win. But it was the lack of offensive daring that cursed the Bucs. Missing were the shots this team took against Detroit, two of which went for long touchdowns. Where was the aggressiveness Sunday? Where was Chucky the meat eater? There were no touchdowns Sunday. There was no anything.

What else to say when the Bucs run 48 plays in the first half to the Jets' 15 and come away with only three field goals and a 9-7 lead? The Jets have a good defense, but how much defense does it take to stop a team that won't go for it? Where was 4-0 confidence? On the sideline with Caddy?

Yes, penalties killed. And third-and-longs were the norm. But that doesn't explain that toss right to Michael Pittman on third-and-12 from the Bucs' 25-yard line in the third quarter. Pittman gathered 2 yards. You would have thought the Bucs were leading, though they were trailing, 14-9. You would have thought the Bucs were 1-3 and the Jets were 4-0.

What about the third-and-10 in the fourth quarter from the Jets' 18? That short pass over the middle from Griese to Ike Hilliard had no chance of doing anything but settling for Matt Bryant's fourth field goal. Gruden said he was hoping for a fourth-and-2 so maybe the Bucs could go for it. Hoping for a fourth-and-2? That was Sunday. Ah, the final two-minute drill: Griese to Hilliard, quick hitch, 8 yards. Griese to Pittman. Eight more yards. Finally, with seconds left, a true downfield pass, caught by Joey Galloway for 26. Longest Bucs gain of the day. Clock runs out. Reality runs in.

Start with Griese. The Bucs are 4-1 despite him, but Griese keeps spiting back. There he was again Sunday, lost at a critical moment. How critical? The Jets were dead, no life at all, in the second quarter. Giants Stadium was quiet. Then Griese threw off his back foot, over Hilliard and into Ty Law, who returned it to the Bucs' 8. Curtis Martin ran it in. The dead came to life. The Jets were back in it. Is Chris Simms?

That toss sweep spoke volumes. Yes, Kenyatta Tackler is right. Sunday didn't doom a season. The Bucs remain atop the NFC South. But there will be diminishing returns without you-know-who. Maybe even with who. And now for Gruden's chilling postgame statement: "Carnell's not ready to go. And his status next week will remain questionable until we see much more significant improvement."

The Bucs won four losable games. Now they've lost a winnable one. Significant improvement? They remain questionable.

Martin Fennelly, The Tampa Tribune 10 October 2005