Another blown chance
Footballs danced in the sky like hotdog wrappers. Passes fluttered as if they had been thrown by a Niekro. Receivers might have had an easier time catching butterflies without a net. It was a windy day at Giants Stadium, with gusts up to 40 miles per hour.

Not necessarily the kind of conditions you would want to put the game in the hands of rookie quarterback Bruce Gradkowski. But that’s exactly what Jon Gruden did as Gradkowski attempted 48 passes in Sunday’s 17-3 loss to the Giants. Although the Bucs never trailed by more than two scores until late in the fourth quarter, they abandoned the running game and threw caution to the swirling wind.

The result: The Bucs’ offense failed to score a touchdown for the second straight game and fell to 2-5 on the season, last in the NFC South. Tampa Bay’s 88 points this season are the fewest in the NFL. The last time the Bucs offense found the end zone was on Michael Clayton’s game-winning catch in the waning seconds against the Bengals Oct. 15.

“”It was tough to read the wind out there,” said receiver Joey Galloway. “It’s probably as bad as I’ve seen wind in a stadium. We got into a situation where we were down and that’s what we had to do. If you look up top (of the goal posts), the flags are going one way. If you’re feeling the wind, it’s going a different way so it’s difficult.”

The Bucs’ gameplan was curious, especially since Gruden anticipated Gradkowski might struggle in the unpredictable breeze at Giants Stadium. That’s why Gruden took about 15 mostly young players — including Gradkowski — to the stadium late Saturday. “It’s tough,” said cornerback Ronde Barber. “Jon brought these guys over here — (Gradkowski) included — yesterday to try and get them acclimated to the winds in the Meadowlands. Unless you’ve played against it and you have some experience here, it’s tough to deal with. They open up both ends of this thing and it can wreak havoc on your passing game.”

It did just that. Gradkowski finished 20-of-48 for 139 yards, but he was victimized by several drops and other miscues. Running back Cadillac Williams, who had 20 yards on only eight carries — including a 16-yard burst — mishandled a pitch on a toss sweep and Giants defensive tackle Fred Robbins recovered at the Tampa Bay 28-yard line. The play set up Brandon Jacobs’ 1-yard touchdown run to give the Giants a 14-0 lead.

During one series in the second quarter, Galloway dropped two passes in a span of three plays deep inside Giants territory. “The wind was there, but those are plays that have got to be made,” Galloway said. “I think those kind of plays kind of get magnified any game that you lose. It’s going to be tough to get your offense on track when you have a chance to make plays and don’t make them.”

The Bucs best scoring chance came on the final possession of the first half, a drive kept alive when New York’s David Tyree jumped offsides with the Bucs in punt formation. Clayton dropped a pass in the corner of the end zone on the ensuing first down at the Giants’ 25-yard line. “It was a (combination) of everything: trying to keep my feet in, keep my eye on the ball because it was drifting,” Clayton said of the dropped ball. “I don’t know exactly where I was on the field because it was drifting. That play, also, should’ve been caught. It was just a bad night for me.”

It got worse in the third quarter. On fourth-and-6 from the Giants’ 44-yard line, Clayton caught a slant for 8-yards and an apparent first down, but fumbled while being tackled The ball was kicked backward and Gradkowski recovered, but it resulted in a turnover on downs. “It changed the momentum of the whole game,” Clayton said. “It’s definitely put on me, man. I let the team down.” Gruden said he emphasized the pass over run in the first and third quarters because the Bucs had the wind at their back.

“We came out and got a field goal and with an 11-point deficit to start the third quarter we said we are going to take advantage of the wind,” Gruden said. “We were going to use the passing game because we knew we could get some guys open and we missed Galloway on the first possession on a big play.”

For the fourth straight game, Gradkowski saw his completion percentage drop, this time falling to 41.6 percent. “I think I can definitely play better,” Gradkowski said. “I definitely need to pick it up, so I’m disappointed in that aspect, just knowing I left some plays out there on the field.”

Just another blown chance for the Bucs.

Rick Stroud, The St.Petersburg Times 30 October 2006