Living On The Edge Catches Up To Bucs
Martin Fennelly, The Tampa Tribune, published 28 November 2005

Life on the edge. The Bucs have played there all season, and done a good job, an amazing one the past two weeks. Sunday, the edge won.

Truly, it had the Bucs beaten even before Matt Bryant's normally reliable right foot misfired from 29 yards, preserving a 13-10 loss to the Bears. Now the edge is on a cliff. The Bucs fell back Sunday, back to 7-4, away from the top of the NFC South, where the Panthers now sit alone. They fell back to the Falcons, Giants and Cowboys. They fell into a three-game December road trip that now looms larger. "This league will challenge your mental toughness," Kenyatta Walker said.

It'll take you to the edge. On the edge, there's no room for error. The Bucs made too many mistakes Sunday -- from Jon Gruden on down -- on offense, on defense, by head, hand and, yes, foot. On the edge, your kicker can be the game-winning hero in Atlanta one week, and the loneliest man in Tampa the next. On the edge, you can't start a grinding game against the league's top-ranked defense by giving its offense a ridiculous touchdown. You can't let their only TD come on a 1-yard drive.

Chris Simms tried a third-and-8 pass from his own 9. First mistake. Bears defensive end Alex Brown, who thought he was back at Florida and the Bucs were Tennessee, stripped Simms. Chicago recovered. Kyle Orton threw a TD pass the next play. "That was the easiest play all day," Orton said.

On the edge, you should never make it easy. On the edge, it doesn't matter if your defense plays well -- the Bucs defense did -- if it doesn't come through at major moments. On the edge, in a grinder, you can't force two fumbles and fall on neither.

The Bucs couldn't stop Chicago from building a field goal before halftime. And there was Chicago's drive for the winning three points. The Bucs had the Bears pinned at their 11. Second-and-16. But Thomas Jones goes left, hits a pile, turns right ... and goes for 19 yards. A few plays later, the Bucs defense is duped on a screen play for 41 more.

On the edge, it doesn't matter how much mental toughness your quarterback showed, and Chris Simms showed enough to satisfy an army of Steve Youngs. Simms led the Bucs back again, across two fourth-quarter drives, to the brink of victory. But he came up short on a questionable third-and-2 pass, making the Bucs settle for Bryant.

On the edge, you can't make shaky play calls. We give Gruden high marks this season, but Sunday was an off day. How is Cadillac Williams not in the game for that third-and-2? The Bears were at the end of a second consecutive long Bucs drive. They were sucking wind. Instead, dainty play-action pass to Mike Alstott in the flat. Simms was pressured. He feared an interception. "So I just played it safe and kind of threw a safe ball," Simms said.

He threw it away, really. Funny, but Sunday a pass was safe, not the run. Why not blast the Bears with Caddy? Why else do you pay him? Or Alstott, really? It's almost as if the Bucs were playing too hard for overtime. On the edge, that's no way to live.

But the Bucs are alive. This loss won't destroy them unless they let it. We'll know this Sunday in Baton Rouge against the schizo Saints, the team without a town. This is more of a bear trap than even the Bears were. Lose next week and the collapse begins, with Carolina and New England next. Win and the world is right again.

The edge is still out there. "He just pushed it," Gruden said of Bryant's missed kick. Someone asked Gruden if he was surprised. Gruden gave up. Can't blame him. "What kind of question is that?" he asked. "If I knew he was going to miss it, I would have gone for it."

Gruden walked to the losing locker room. A television near its doors was blaring. The ever-annoying Terry Bradshaw yelled Bucs-Bears highlights. "Are you kidding me! He missed a 29-yarder."

Gruden shook his head. Seemed on edge.