Fumbled Away
Roy Cummings, The Tampa Tribune, published 19 October 2004

They had you believing, didn't they? For nearly four full quarters Monday night they had you believing the way baseball fans in Houston and Boston are believing today. That's what the Bucs did Monday night. They instilled belief in their legions of followers. For nearly four full quarters, they had you believing that this once lost season would not only live on, but also live on with a purpose. Now, there's no telling where the Bucs will go. Or who will lead them there.

Before Tim Brown's fumble with 26 seconds left brought an end to what proved to be a 28-21 Rams victory at the Edward Jones Center, Brian Griese looked like he had pushed Chris Simms back down the depth chart. He had resurrected an offense that has struggled all season long to find the end zone, putting on a dazzling show of his own in a building that houses what has become known as the Greatest Show on Turf.

It was an offensive high wire act in which rookie receiver Michael Clayton ran up more than 100 yards in receptions for the first time in his career but still couldn't outshine Rams receiver Torry Holt. Holt proved to be the hero in this one, catching two touchdown passes including the game-winner, a 36-yard catch that came after he slipped behind Bucs nickelback Mario Edwards near the end zone. ``I want to tip my hat to Tampa,'' Holt said afterward. ``It's fun playing these guys; they challenge you on every single play.''

The Bucs challenged the Rams, but in the end it was mistakes that once again cost the Bucs, who turned the ball over four times in dropping to 1-5. There was Brown's fumble at the end of a 21-yard pass play that put them within easy striking distance of the goal line. There was center John Wade's fumble of a snap to Griese at the Bucs 5 that the Rams quickly turned into a touchdown. There was Jerametrius Butler's interception of a Griese pass on the next-to-last offensive drive of the night for Tampa Bay. There was Adam Archuleta's 93-yard return for a touchdown of a Michael Pittman fumble midway through the fourth quarter. And there was kicker Martin Gramatica's misses of field goal tries of 35 and 48 yards in the first half. ``We missed two field goals and fumbled in the red zone twice,'' Jon Gruden said. ``I'm fully responsible for this mess, with all these turnovers; we might be the best 1-5 team in history. We did it to ourselves.''

The mistakes rendered meaningless not only another solid effort by Griese, who completed 27 of 40 passes for 286 yards and two touchdowns, but also one of the best efforts of the season by the Bucs defensive front four. That unit got four sacks, including two by Greg Spires and one each from Anthony McFarland and Simeon Rice, and consistently put pressure on Rams quarterback Marc Bulger. And they rendered meaningless Clayton's best game yet as a pro. He caught eight passes for 142 yards, but with his team's hopes for the season fading, he couldn't revel in it. ``There were a couple more catches I could've made and maybe we would've won,'' Clayton said.

Gruden is not so sure that Clayton didn't do all he could. He said the rookie out of LSU ``ignited'' the Bucs on Monday. If Clayton ignited the Bucs, Griese kept the fire burning. He connected on each of his first nine throws and found the end zone twice in the first 20 minutes. But that fire eventually died out. ``We didn't win the game,'' Griese said. ``It's tough. I felt we did some things to keep us in the game, but we turned it over too many times.''

You got the idea from listening to the pregame hype for this one that the Bucs and Rams might be engaging in a track meet and not a football game. The talk prior to Monday was all about the Rams' speed on offense and the Bucs' speed on defense. And almost immediately after the opening kickoff, those two factors came into play. On just the fifth play of the game, Holt hauled in a Bulger pass and ran past two Bucs defenders en route to a 52-yard score that gave the Rams a 7-0 lead.

With the score coming just 2:20 into the game, it was a torrid pace the Rams set. The Bucs quickly proved they could keep up with it, though, as they scored themselves just 3:26 later. Mike Alstott completed the drive, which lasted just six plays, by rumbling over the goal line from a yard out. But it was mostly the work of Griese that got the Bucs into the end zone. After Torrie Cox set up the drive by bringing kicker Jeff Wilkins' kick back 59 yards to the Rams 43, Griese completed each of his four passes to account for 37 of the yards that the Bucs offense traversed.

Griese didn't stop there, either. He went on to complete each of his first nine passes, including one of 44 yards to Clayton, whose long catch of the quarter set up a 5-yard scoring strike to Pittman at the 13:02 mark. That score gave the Bucs a 14-7 lead and with the Bucs defense getting the better of the Rams offense - they sacked Bulger twice in the first half - the Bucs were in position to pull away.

As the first half wound down, though, a bad snap by Wade on third-and-7 play at the Bucs 7 changed all that and gave the Rams a chance to tie the game, which they did in quick fashion. Four plays after Leonard Little recovered Wade's fumble, Marshall Faulk reached across the goal line and touched the ball down to give the Rams a 14-14 tie that stood in large part because of the play of Gramatica.

Gramatica struggled all of last year and all through the preseason this year with kicks between 40 and 49 yards out and he struggled from that range again Monday, missing a kick of 48 yards near the end of the half. Coupled with an earlier miss of 35 yards, Gramatica's second miss left six points on the field in a first-half effort that Gruden expressed plenty of disappointment with. ``You've got to make your field goals,'' Gruden said. ``We're disappointed in that.''

Gruden was equally disappointed in two fumbles, the one by Wade, which led directly to the Rams' second score, and a third-quarter fumble by Pittman that Archuleta ran back 93 yards for a score. It was the longest fumble recovery against the Bu\cs in franchise history and it gave the Rams a 21-14 lead.