Unbearable Ending
Roy Cummings, The Tampa Tribune, published 27 November 2005

Every week now it's about positioning. It's about gaining ground in the playoff race or losing it. On Sunday, the Bucs lost ground. They took a step backward. That piece of first place in the NFC South they shared with the Carolina Panthers when the day began is gone. Making it back up will be difficult. Three consecutive road games loom on the horizon.

The good news is, they didn't lose any confidence Sunday. As costly as their 13-10 loss to the Bears (8-3) at Raymond James Stadium was, the Bucs (7-4) came out of it with their confidence intact. "We didn't get our butts whupped," right tackle Kenyatta Walker said. "We just got into a dogfight. And there were times when we looked pretty good. But there were also some times when, man, we just looked ugly."

Nothing looked uglier than kicker Matt Bryant pushing a potential game-tying 29-yard field goal to the right of the uprights late in the fourth quarter. Unless, of course, it was quarterback Chris Simms losing a fumble at his own 1. That giveaway, which was one of several big plays created by Bears end Alex Brown, came on the third play of the Bucs' first series and it resulted one play later in a Bears touchdown from which the Bucs never recovered. "That was the story line of the day if you ask me," Jon Gruden said. "We have the fumble at the 1-yard line, they capitalize and we were unable to make a couple of opportunities work for us."

It was indeed a game of wasted opportunities for the Bucs. Cornerback Ronde Barber wasted one. Shortly after the Bucs cut the Bears' lead to 7-3 late in the first quarter, he flat out dropped an errant Kyle Orton pass. Tight end Anthony Becht and wide receiver Michael Clayton were guilty, too. Both dropped catchable passes (Becht in the first quarter, Clayton in the second), and the drops forced the Bucs to eventually punt.

Then there was Bryant. He had made good on all but two of his field goal tries prior to Sunday, and he had no trouble hitting a 27-yarder and a PAT before he walked out to attempt the game-tying 29-yarder late in the fourth quarter. That's significant, because Bryant "tweaked" his hamstring on the game's opening kickoff. However, the fact that he showed no ill effects over the course of the next three quarters convinced Gruden that Bryant was good to go.

"It's unfortunate, but he just pushed it," Gruden said of Bryant, who echoed Gruden's comments and added that his hamstring injury did not factor into his miss. "Twenty-nine yards? It should go down the middle every time," Bryant said. "I just missed it. It was one of those days where something like that shouldn't happen, but it did happen. I mean, you can't get too high with the highs or too low with the lows, but this is pretty low. This could have been a big win for us. It just didn't happen."

What happens next is what matters most. A young team, at least on offense, embarks on a three-game road trip that includes games against the Super Bowl champion Patriots and first-place Panthers. Already, it's on their minds. "This game is about mental toughness," Walker said. "So we're going to find out here over the next two or three weeks just how tough we really are. We're going to find out what we're made of. Based on what I saw [Sunday], I like our chances. I mean, we were in it all the way, against a very good defense. We fought as a line and when we got knocked down we got back up and got back at it. That's a good sign."

Here's another: Simms, as he has done each of the previous two weeks, put the Bucs in position to win. With his team trailing 13-3, he engineered a fourth-quarter touchdown drive and another potential scoring drive that ended with Bryant's miss. And he did it this time against the top-ranked defense in the league, a unit that at one point Sunday had not surrendered a touchdown on 37 consecutive opponent possessions. "That comeback that Chris Simms engineered in the last couple of possessions was one of the things I'll be most proud of in my relationship with him," Gruden said. "He was very poised in those back-to-back drives."

That's saying something. After all, the Bucs never did quite figure out how to block Brown. They tried a variety of combinations, but the former Florida star finished the day with two sacks, four pass breakups and a forced fumble. "We played Carolina a few weeks ago, and I didn't think there could be a defensive line or defense altogether that could be that good," Simms said. "The Bears probably proved me wrong."

Opposing quarterbacks used to talk of the Tampa Bay defense that way. Sometimes they still do, but the Bucs have struggled on third down in recent games, and Sunday was no different. Though they allowed the Bears to convert just four of their 15 third downs, one produced 41 yards and extended a drive that resulted in Robbie Gould kicking the game-deciding field goal.

"They had a call there, and we had one of our man-free blitzes," linebacker Derrick Brooks said. "I was inches away from knocking that ball down. That's how small the difference is. I was so close to knocking it down, but I didn't. That's the kind of game it was. We had our chances to make plays in a three phases of the game. We just didn't make them. So I give them credit for hanging in there. But I really feel like we'll see them again."