There's always a way. Even when you're down to your third quarterback, your fifth wide receiver and the last option in your playbook. The key is to discover it, and that's what Jon Gruden had been encouraging the Bucs to do ever since Saturday night. Find a way to succeed; find a way to win. With an inkling that his beleaguered offense would struggle against one of the league's best defenses, Gruden made that phrase his theme for Sunday's game and much like Tony Dungy did, he found what he was looking for by turning to kicker Martin Gramatica. A contributor himself to the Bucs' offensive woes in recent weeks, Gramatica broke out of a 2-for-5 slump and guided the Bucs to a 12-9 victory against the Panthers by turning in a 4- for-4 effort that transcended football in the eyes of some. ``Martin is our Barry Bonds,'' safety John Lynch said. ``If we get the ball down for him, get it set and block some people, he's going to hit some three-run homers and do some damage.''
Gramatica did most of his damage Sunday in the fourth quarter, erasing a 9-3 deficit by going deep with field goals of 52, 53 and 47 yards, the second of which was his longest of the season. The last allowed the Bucs (6-2) to jump into a tie with New Orleans for first place in the NFC South Division. It also allowed the players on offense to walk out of Ericsson Stadium with their heads high - though just barely.
For the second consecutive week the Bucs gained less than 230 yards of total offense and failed to score an offensive touchdown. It was just the latest in a long line of disappointing performances, and the fact that the Bucs list of wounded offensive warriors only increased as the game progressed didn't matter to Gruden. After guard Kerry Jenkins, reserve receiver Joe Jurevicius and backup quarterback Rob Johnson were added to an injury list that already included starting quarterback Brad Johnson and receiver Keenan McCardell, Gruden expressed further displeasure with the offense's play. ``We didn't run the ball with any consistent success,'' he said. ``I mean, we hung in there and found a way to keep competing. But all in all we have a lot of work to do.''
Most of the work needs to be done by the offensive line, which once again failed to provide its quarterbacks with adequate pass protection. In an effort that Gruden said was sometimes ``embarrassing,'' it surrendered six sacks and allowed Rob Johnson to get hit so much that he had to yield to Shaun King on the last play of the game-deciding drive. ``There were a couple of protection issues where we let a guy get through on us right up the middle or he got free off the edge,'' Gruden said. ``Those guys have to be accounted for. Those are embarrassing issues, and we take them very personally here. That will never be acceptable. It won't stand here. We have to eliminate it and eliminate it now.''
Those protection issues surfaced immediately. Rob Johnson was sacked the first time he dropped back to pass and by the end of the day he had been hurried or hit more than a dozen times. Still, he managed to complete 22 of the 33 passes he threw, and while he did cough up one fumble and throw an interception, his play drew praise from his coach. ``He kept our team moving and won as a starter,'' Gruden said.
The same could not be said of Carolina starter Randy Fasani. A rookie making his first NFL start, Fasani did not complete his first pass until 5:35 remained in what proved to be a record-setting first half for the Bucs defense. By holding Carolina to just 15 total yards, including minus-4 passing, the Bucs set two one-half team records the first 30 minutes. However, because of their own ability to finish drives, the Bucs went into the locker room at the half tied 3-3.
The Panthers came out much stronger offensively in the second half. Led by running back Lamar Smith, who gained more than half of his 82 yards during the first 12 minutes of the third quarter, Carolina built a 9-3 edge on a pair of Shayne Graham field goals. ``They popped a couple on us, and there was one run where we just missed some tackles,'' said Lynch, whose unit lost nose tackle Anthony McFarland to a broken forearm along the way. ``But after that we adjusted and shut them down pretty well.''
The Panthers, who intercepted Johnson to kill one drive and forced them to go three and out on another, shut down the Bucs as well. But they couldn't shut down Gramatica. After his 52-yard field goal made it a 9-6 game, he tied it by hitting the 53-yarder that came after punt returner Steve Smith gave the Bucs new life by fumbling the ball away at his own 42 yard line. The Bucs then mounted their game-winning drive, which succeeded thanks primarily to the clutch play of reserves such as King, Reggie Barlow and long snapper Ryan Benjamin. Barlow, who had been inactive for each of the Bucs first six games, caught a key 6-yard pass from Johnson early in the drive.
Then, after Johnson took a hit at the end of a 9-yard third- down run that kept him from continuing, King hit Karl Williams with a 7-yard pass that put the Bucs into field goal range. Finally, Benjamin fired a bullet back to holder Tom Tupa despite suffering from a hamstring strain that made it nearly impossible for him to bend over. All that remained was for Gramatica to send the ball through the uprights, which he did. ``Look,'' Johnson said afterward, ``everybody would like to be like the Oakland Raiders and be able to score a lot of touchdowns. We're not. But we're finding ways to win and that's what's important.''
Roy Cummings The Tampa Tribune October 2002