Loud And Clear
Keyshawn Johnson's absence was no more responsible for the Bucs' win against the Giants than his presence was the sole culprit for the three consecutive losses that preceded it.
You see, linking cause and effect is tricky business. Perhaps this long-overdue victory by the defending Super Bowl champions would have taken place had No. 19 not been deactivated six days earlier. No one can say for sure.
This much we know: When it came to Bucs players speaking up in defense of their former teammate - and yes, he is a former teammate, no matter what the roster says - there was almost total silence last week. When it came time to perform without the receiver who no longer wanted to be one of them, the Bucs' determination spoke volumes. It was the kind of talking this team desperately needed.
Monday night's 19-13 decision would not be confused with a playoff-caliber victory by any stretch. The Bucs were the better of two 4-6 teams - not exactly must-see TV. It will look much better in the film sessions at One Buc Place, however, than any of the three losses it followed, and for that Bucs fans can be thankful.
As much as the Bucs wanted to downplay the Keyshawn issue and turn the page on this night, one had to wonder what Johnson was thinking as he watched - if he watched - the club that still writes his paychecks get along without him. Joe Jurevicius started in his place and caught Brad Johnson's first pass of the night. Charles Lee, rarely a factor most of the time, hauled in a 53-yard pass for his first TD in a Bucs uniform. The offensive line did more blocking than facemasking or holding.
It wasn't what you'd call explosive offensive football, but it was a step in the right direction. For the first time in a month, the Bucs grabbed an early lead instead of sleepwalking through the first half. Then they conjured up the resolve to hold it. This night proved that the remaining Bucs do indeed want to play.
The defense hit harder than it has in several weeks. Dwight Smith prevented a touchdown when he jarred the football and a helmet from Amani Toomer's possession on a violent first-half lick. Smith later intercepted a Kerry Collins pass in the end zone to prevent another possible score. It was one of four turnovers the Bucs corraled. More important, the Bucs defense avoided a fourth- quarter letdown like the ones that helped produce losses to Indianapolis, New Orleans, Carolina and Green Bay.
Slamming the door on an opponent used to be a given with the great Bucs defense. Not this season. At least not before Monday, when the Giants appeared poised to rally from a 17-6 fourth-quarter deficit. New York scored on Frank Walker's interception return to make it a 17-13 game. The Giants then regained possession with 3 minutes to go, and throats in the stands became visibly tighter. You could almost hear the concern. 'Oh no. Not again.'
This time, instead of folding, the Bucs defense unfurled big plays - the kind of plays that it once made routinely en route to building a reputation as one of the game's best. John Lynch picked off Collins, and the Bucs offense was back on the field. When the Giants made a big fourth-down stop and earned another chance, the Bucs cranked up the D to an even higher level and backed up the Giants to the shadow of their own end zone.
New York opted to give the Bucs a safety and take its chances with an onside kick. The Bucs recovered, capping a solid day for their special teams. Reggie Barlow looked more comfortable than ever in his return role. His 14-yard punt return in the first half won't find its way into the record books, but it did allow the Bucs to start a drive in Giants territory, setting up a Thomas Jones touchdown.
Somewhere through it all, Keyshawn Johnson watched. Or slept. Or talked on a cell phone. California time is three hours earlier, after all. The Bucs' time is now, thanks to 10 shaky weeks of shaky football. Determining cause and effect is a job for another time.