Just a bloated, ugly mess
Take rookie running back Carnell "Cadillac" Williams from the lineup, and the 2005 Tampa Bay Buccaneers look an awful lot like the 2004 version. That was the case Sunday, as the New York Jets -- behind a 41-year-old quarterback fresh off the unemployment line -- handed the Bucs their first loss of the season in a 14-12 eyesore that was worthy of the wet and swampy surroundings at the Meadowlands.

Two ageless wonders, quarterback Vinny Testaverde and tailback Curtis Martin, made enough plays for the Jets and steered clear of the kind of costly errors that doomed their much younger counterparts. "Mistakes killed us," Bucs running back Michael Pittman said. "When we eliminate those kinds of things, we're unbeatable."

The Bucs (4-1) weathered some miscues in jumping to their best start since 1997, but did so with a jolt from Williams during the first four games. But the sprained foot and sore hamstring that prevented Williams from practicing last week had him on the inactive list against the Jets (2-3).

Without Williams' breakaway threat -- and facing a good defense -- the Bucs had to scratch for every inch of their season-low 285 yards on the way to settling for four Matt Bryant field goals. The Bucs failed to score a touchdown for the first time in 19 games. "We never found a rhythm," quarterback Brian Griese said.

They certainly had their chances. The Bucs ran 33 more plays (48 to 15) than the Jets in the first half and held the ball more than three times longer (22:50 to 7:10), but failed to punch into the end zone. Tampa Bay led 9-7 at halftime, thanks to a poorly thrown Griese pass that was intercepted and returned 43 yards by cornerback Ty Law. It set up Martin's first touchdown run and gave sudden life to the home team and woke up the sellout crowd of 77,852. "That's the NFL, man. Penalties and turnovers usually catch up with you," Bucs offensive tackle Kenyatta Walker said. "But we play 16 games. This didn't kick us out of anything, didn't do anything bad to us."

By day's end, Tampa Bay still sat alone atop the NFC South, thanks to a loss by Atlanta to New England. But Coach Jon Gruden will find little consolation in that when he reviews the tape and sees how his team helped the Jets out of their hole. Besides the interception by Griese, the Bucs were flagged 12 times for 87 yards in penalties and converted just two of their 14 third-down situations.

In the third quarter, Griese and the offense were on the field for just three plays. The Jets got the ball to open the half, and Testaverde led them on a 10-play, 59-yard drive that ended with a 1-yard run by Martin that gave the Jets the lead for good at 14-9. "We needed a win against a good football team," said Jets Coach Herman Edwards, a former Bucs assistant under Tony Dungy. "That's a good football team, and we beat them."

With a chance to take the lead, the Bucs were a cautious team in the fourth quarter. Griese drove the offense from its 4 to a first down at New York's 18, but none of his next three passes went into the end zone. On third-and-10, Griese threw underneath to Ike Hilliard for a 6-yard gain to bring up fourth down. Gruden opted for a Bryant field goal of 30 yards with a little more than four minutes to go rather than a crack at a first down and chance to take the lead. "With four minutes to go and two timeouts, we felt making it a two-point game was the thing to do," Gruden said.

But Testaverde, who was out of football until signing Sept. 27, hit Laveranues Coles for 17 yards on a third-and-4 from the Jets' 31 with 2:16 left to keep the ball from the Bucs. When the Jets finally punted, the Bucs started at their 12 with just a minute to play and no timeouts. And no chance. "There's a lesson to be learned from this," Tampa Bay linebacker Derrick Brooks said. "We have to come out of the locker room and hit the field with some fight."

It would help if they hit it with their prized rookie, too. Clearly, the Bucs are not the same team without him. They might not even be a good team without him.

Chris Harry, The Orlando Sentinel 10 October 2005