Tim Brown's fumble ends Bucs' last shot
It was entertaining, a back-and-forth, up-and-down carnival ride that tested the strength of your stomach. It was fast with incredibly quick players dashing across a slick surface. It was close, the kind of game that can file your fingernails to the nubs. But as has often been the case for the Bucs this season, it was another loss. Pro Bowl receiver Torry Holt caught touchdowns of 52 and 36 yards to lead the Rams to a 28-21 win over Tampa Bay on Monday night. "It's tough, isn't it?" Jon Gruden said. "We're going to rebound. We've lost five tough games. I complement (my players). They're tough mentally and physically. And they're the best 1-5 team in the league. I promise you that. I'm excited about the future. I could care less about pessimism."

The defeat spoiled an impressive starting debut by Brian Griese. He was 27-of-40 for 286 yards and touchdowns to Michael Pittman and Will Heller. "I wish we had run the ball better in the first half," Bucs tight end Ken Dilger said. "But (Griese) made some great throws, and (Michael Clayton) had a great game. We moved the ball well. We just didn't finish when we had our chance. That's just the bottom line."

Griese nearly brought the Bucs back twice. First, he completed two passes for first downs to Clayton and another to Charles Lee. But on third and 18 from the Rams 29, Griese's pass to Clayton in the end zone fell short and was intercepted by Jerametrius Butler with 5:42 left. The Rams drove to the Bucs 26 and kept the ball until 1:14 left. But Jeff Wilkins missed a 44-yard field goal. Then Griese hit Clayton on fourth and 5 to the Rams 36 with 48 seconds left. After an incompletion, he hit Tim Brown in stride. But Brown fumbled at the 15, and Butler recovered. "They fight their (butts) off every week," Gruden said. "That's the code around here. And I'm proud of them."

Any time you play the Rams on the slick and quick surface of the Edward Jones Dome, you have to be wary of their offense, the "Greatest Show of Turf." But it was the Rams defense that accounted for two touchdowns off Tampa Bay turnovers. With the Bucs leading 14-7 in the second quarter, Griese fumbled a snap from center John Wade at the Rams 5 to set up Marshall Faulk's 1-yard tying touchdown run four plays later.

In the third quarter, Pittman was stripped of the ball by safety Adam Archuleta, who returned the fumble 93 yards for a touchdown. Archuleta's touchdown, which handed the Rams a 21-14 lead, came one play after linebacker Ian Gold intercepted Marc Bulger and returned it to the St. Louis 15. "I was just trying to get some more yards," Pittman said. "I was trying to run hard all night. It was tough sweating all night. It was me and Archuleta, and he dragged me down. I was trying to drag him. He made a good play. He got his hands under the ball, and I thought I was down. But the replay showed I wasn't down, and he made a good play."

No lead was safe. On the Rams' next possession, Greg Spires sacked Bulger, forcing a fumble that was recovered by Anthony McFarland at the St. Louis 20. It was Spires' second sack of the game, enabling the Bucs to tie the score. Griese converted a third-down pass to Dilger, setting up his 1-yard scoring toss to Heller with 37 seconds left in the third quarter.

Griese, who relieved the injured Chris Simms last week at New Orleans and led the Bucs to their first victory of the season, made first start for Tampa Bay. That figured to bode well for the Bucs. Griese had made his starting debut with the Broncos and Dolphins on Monday Night Football , winning both and throwing six touchdown passes in the process. Against the Rams, Griese came out smoking, hitting his first nine passes for 127 yards, including a 44-yarder to Clayton to set up the Bucs' second touchdown. On third and goal from the 5, Griese unloaded a touchdown to Pittman to give Tampa Bay a 14-7 lead 1:58 into the second quarter. It was a clutch play by Griese, who had Leonard Little in his chest when he released the pass.

The Bucs had a chance to take a two-touchdown lead in the first half. Griese fired his first incompletion when Clayton failed to put away a 17-yard strike in the end zone with 9:34 remaining. Lee dropped Griese's next attempt, forcing Martin Gramatica to try a 35-yard field goal. Gramatica, who made 8 of 9 field goals to start the season, saw his 35-yard attempt ruled no good when it sailed over the left upright. It was the second straight miss for Gramatica, who pushed a 41-yard attempt wide left last week.

The Bucs' only mistake on offense in the first half was a costly one, after punter Sean Landeta pinned Tampa Bay deep when he killed the ball at the Bucs 4. On third down, Griese never got the handle on a snap and Little recovered at the Tampa Bay 5. The Bucs defense stiffened, but on fourth and goal from the 1, Faulk stretched the ball across the goal line to tie it at 14 with 1:42 before halftime.

Tampa Bay had a chance to go to the locker room with the lead. Wilkins knocked the kickoff out of bounds, allowing Tampa Bay to start at its 40. Griese drove the Bucs into field goal range, but Gramatica's 48-yard attempt was wide left. "If I would have made those kicks, we would have won the game," Gramatica said.

The game immediately took on a playground feel, a seesaw, to be exact. The Rams struck on their fifth play when Bulger connected with Holt for a 52-yard touchdown. Holt ran a simple post route, and Bulger drilled him with a pass between Mario Edwards and Jermaine Phillips. The Bucs answered right back. Torrie Cox returned the ensuing kickoff 59 yards. Griese started hot, connecting on his first three pass attempts for 36 yards, the first two to Clayton. Mike Alstott tied the score at 7 when he bulled across on third and goal from the 1.

Rick Stroud The St.Petersburg Times 19 October 2004