Bucs Salvage Their Dignity - Just Barely
The fun part - not to be confused with most of this game - was that the Bucs scored 19 points. 19. The fun part was wondering where Key was when it happened. Was he watching the TV? Was he in L.A.? On a private jet? Was he in a phone interview with a high school newspaper editor, repeating that he'd be happy to play in Tampa next year?
We can only imagine what went through The Deactivated One's mind as his replacement, Charles Lee, went over the middle, caught a football and eluded five New York Giants in racing for a touchdown during the Bucs' 19-13 victory. We didn't have to imagine what was going through Jon Gruden's mind. A smirk turned to a smile. This had to be right up there with his wedding, the birth of his boys, the Super Bowl and the day the alarm clock was invented.
Lee, in just his second NFL start, made just the second TD of his career. It went for 53 yards and instantly gave him as many receptions for 50 yards or more (1) as Key had in 59 games as a Buc. Seriously. It did. Seriously. They won.
So stop laughing at that ridiculous game. Ugly, ugly, ugly. We don't know whether we can credit Keyshawn's absence for this win, any more than we would have been able to blame a loss on it. They won. That's all. They didn't give up. For one night, that was enough.
Don't be fooled. These teams were 4-6 for good reasons. Playoffs? All Monday might have decided was that the rest of the Giants' season will be more rotten than the rest of the Bucs' season. Monday told us the Bucs' problems go beyond Keyshawn. They barely beat a New York team that gave them every conceivable break, including starting Kerry Collins at quarterback and Jim Fassel at head coach.
The Bucs seemed unmoved. What was Brad Johnson thinking on that interception he threw for a touchdown? What was Jon Gruden thinking when, ahead by just four, well within field-goal range, he went for it on fourth-and-one and gave the Giants the ball back with two minutes left?
But the Bucs couldn't lose this game, not after the week that was. If they had lost, with Key gone and America tuning in, they would have shriveled up, never to be seen again. This night was about dignity. The Bucs still have theirs. Barely. But they have it. Forget playoffs. These guys just needed a win. They needed some pride. Leave it to the defense.
They had been picked apart or trampled in recent weeks. Greatness fled. Enough of it returned Monday. Enough to keep the Giants offense scoreless. To force four turnovers. A hit that produced a mushroom cloud set the tone. Dwight Smith separated Giants receiver Amani Toomer from a touchdown catch, his helmet and his senses. Toomer was so out of it he mistook Charles Lee for Keyshawn. Easy enough to do.
There was no mistaking whose hands this game was in. John Lynch picked a ball off to kill one late New York drive. Warren Sapp's second sack of a monster night destroyed another. Sapp and Lynch. The old guard. ``There's a lot of pride in that locker room,'' Gruden said.
And Charles Lee looked better than Key. Talk about pride. Lee, the 242nd pick in the 2000 draft, has been cut twice by the Bucs. But there he was Monday, with everyone watching, catching five balls for 91 yards. And who out there thinks Key runs away from those guys for that TD? And was Key watching? The thought made us laugh. ``Key's a good guy,'' Lee said. ``We all miss him.''
More laughter. The Bucs didn't look much better than the Giants. That's not so funny. But pride is pride. For one night, it was enough.