A Matter Of Faith
While everyone argued and debated and watched replays of Michael Pittman's controversial fourth-quarter non-fumble, a coaching call made seconds later - not a referee's decision - turned out to be the turning point of Sunday's game. Falcons coach Jim Mora was still fuming about the play on which a return of an apparent Pittman fumble for a touchdown was nullified when officials decided Pittman's forward progress had been stopped.

Across the Georgia Dome field, Mora's counterpart made a decision. Rather than send Martin Gramatica in to try a potential game-tying field goal of some 45 yards, Bucs coach Jon Gruden decided to go for it on fourth-and-1. Tampa Bay trailed 17-14. A field goal would have erased what had once been a 17-0 Bucs deficit and put pressure squarely on the Falcons to try pulling out a game it once seemed to have under control.

Instead, Gruden turned to a running game that totaled only 68 yards all day. He called for a toss sweep to Pittman, who was stuffed in the backfield by the fired-up Falcons. Three plays later, Michael Vick connected with a wide- open Alge Crumpler downfield for a 49-yard touchdown that extended the lead to 10 points. In the blink of an eye, the Bucs had passed up a chance to tie the game and wound up saddled with a crushing loss.

Gramatica's struggles have been disturbing to Bucs fans, to say the least. He has missed his last four attempts of 35 or more yards. One of these weeks, his no-longer-reliable leg was going to cost his team a game. Was this the one?

If there's something seriously wrong with Gramatica, such as the ``right hip flexor'' that seems to be the company line, then the Bucs need to find another leg - at least temporarily. An NFL team without an above-average chance to kick a 45-yard field goal is an NFL team that's going to lose a lot of close games. If Gruden remains confident in Gramatica but simply thought going for the first down was the better choice, he needs to get more sleep. You kick the field goal and tie the score in a hostile road setting. Unless, that is, you don't think you can kick the field goal.

There were other factors in the Bucs' loss, to be sure. Thirteen penalties for 83 yards were a big reason Tampa Bay is now among the longest of longshots for a wild-card berth. Both Atlanta touchdown drives in the first half were penalty-aided. A 15-yard facemasking call against Simeon Rice was a crusher after it appeared the Falcons had been forced to punt. The Bucs did a remarkable job of overcoming those miscues with dominating defense and some big plays in the second half. A comeback win seemed well within reach.

Instead, the comeback came up short. Partially by choice.

Marty Strasen The Tampa Tribune 15 November 2004