There Is No Way To Justify This Play-Calling
Joey Johnston, The Tampa Tribune, published 30 October 2006|
When the expansion Bucs were still winless, Coach John McKay famously said, "We couldn't score against a stiff wind."
Thirty years later, McKay's assessment still applies. Oh, this was bad. Vintage bad. And Jon Gruden's play-calling made it worse.
Shortly after Tampa Bay's 17-3 loss to the New York Giants - in an atmosphere where swirling winds (with gusts up to 40 mph) played havoc with both offenses - Gruden explained the predicament.
"Not only was it hard to throw it, it was hard to catch it," Gruden said. "It was hard to pitch it. It was hard to snap it. It was hard - period. It was hard to do anything with the football today, other than to hand it off."
So how do you explain this? Gruden handed it to Cadillac Williams just eight times (20 yards). Williams went 16 yards on a third-quarter stretch play - and we never saw it again.
Rookie quarterback Bruce Gradkowski threw 48 passes in these impossible conditions.
When the Bucs went down by two touchdowns - the second one coming on a 28-yard drive after a fumbled pitch play - they panicked.
They abandoned the run (only 10 of the 63 snaps were designed running plays), even on a day when Tampa Bay's defense was mostly stellar and the Giants handed over opportunity after opportunity. Bad plan.
Heading into Sunday, there was a glimmer of hope. The Bucs had a two-game winning streak after beginning 0-4 - from loserus to Lazarus? - and a third straight win would open more possibilities. Home date with New Orleans. A division game with a chance for .500. Poof! All gone. From Fantasyland to reality. The Bucs are 2-5.
"I guess what we have to do is not fall behind," Alex Smith said. "When we get behind, we kind of lose track of the run."
And the result was noticeable, even from New York's sideline.
"We made them one-dimensional because they had to throw the ball," Giants receiver Plaxico Burress said. "They are not comfortable throwing the football."
As for the Giants?
"This is the first time I have played in a game where the wind affected your play calling," Giants quarterback Eli Manning said. "Even though they were putting eight guys in the box, we were forced to run. It was one of those days where you had to just tough it out."
The Giants adjusted to the conditions. They toughed it out. The Bucs made it tough on themselves. When Williams runs consistently, when he is given the opportunity to get under way, the Bucs usually win. When he is ignored, the Bucs lose. Sunday had the feel of a rugged 30-carry day. He got eight.
"Anytime you throw the ball that much, it's going to be tough," Gradkowski said. "We knew they were going to want to stop the run and make a rookie [Gradkowski] make plays."
"No question about it," said Gruden, when asked if 48 pass attempts by Gradkowski put him in a difficult spot. "We also know we were down two scores."
Two scores is not a 30-0 deficit. The Giants weren't doing anything, either, so the Bucs could afford to be patient. Tampa Bay's defensive players, who were called out specifically by Gruden a few weeks ago, must be beyond frustration. Especially after an early fourth-quarter sequence, when the Bucs trailed 14-3. Third-and-1 at the Giants 32-yard line. Williams was stuffed for no gain on a slow developing run play.
Fourth down. "We had an exciting play called," Gruden said.
Smith, in a two tight-end set, slipped through the line. "We expected the Giants to go for our [run] fake and sell out on the run," Smith said. "Only they didn't."
Smith was covered. "I was a decoy, trying to occupy guys," said the other tight end, Anthony Becht, who ran down the field. "I wasn't an option. It was pretty much a one-receiver route. It was hit or miss."
Gradkowski, under heavy pressure, delivered a sidearm throw - to no one in particular. And that's when Tampa Bay's last hope was blown away.
The Bucs have scored 88 points - last in the NFL (Oakland has surged ahead with its 92nd point). It was their fourth game this season without an offensive touchdown. The Bucs have been held under 200 yards six times in Gruden's tenure - three times this season. Obviously, conditions must be perfect for this offense to click. They weren't.
Gruden's suspect play-calling only made things worse.