The Bucs got a glimpse at life without quarterback Jeff Garcia on Sunday. It wasn't pretty. In fact, it was downright ugly. That's how Garcia described it, anyway. At least he could smile through the critique. Or was that a wince?
It was probably the latter. The lower back injury Garcia suffered on the first play of what eventually was a takeaway-induced 19-13 victory over the Redskins was still bothering him when he stepped to a podium to address the media several hours later.
It will probably bother him for several days to come and may even keep him from practicing this week. Don't think for a second, though, that it will keep him out of that pivotal division matchup against New Orleans this Sunday.
If Garcia could figure out a way to get back into a game that was slipping away against Washington, which he did, then he's sure to figure out a way to get into one the Bucs can't afford to let slip away this weekend.
And you can be sure Coach Jon Gruden will be right there urging him along. Gruden's description of the Bucs' offensive performance sans Garcia was no more glowing than Garcia's. During the nine-plus series in which second-year pro Bruce Gradkowski stood in for Garcia, the Bucs produced eight first downs and gained a total of 141 yards on 47 plays.
"I think they wanted to see Bruce throw it," Gruden said of the Redskins, who allowed 99 yards rushing but limited the Bucs to 192 yards overall. "We went through this last year. You can game plan all you want, but sooner or later they're going to jump down into a very difficult front to block and you're going to have to make some plays in the passing game. We did not do that at an acceptable level today."
About the only good thing anyone could really say of Gradkowski's emergency effort was that he didn't give the ball away. He certainly did not fully capitalize on all the Redskins' giveaways as the Bucs established a season high for takeaways. They recovered four fumbles and picked off two Jason Campbell passes, both in the latter stages of the game to thwart a valiant Washington comeback bid. "We didn't help them out too much in the second half, but we protected the ball today and that's what you need to do to win football games," Gradkowski said.
But with Gradkowski struggling to move the team, especially in the red zone, where three of those drives following takeaways began, the Bucs scored 16 points off the Redskins' giveaways.
"It was a very ugly game as far as the offense is concerned, not being able to move the ball and not being able to help our defense out," Garcia said. "But that was a tremendous job by our defense. They were out there the entire game, creating turnovers and giving our team opportunities to put points on the board. We won this game today because of how our defense played."
That defense, which was "out there" for 61 plays and nearly 35 minutes of playing time, was visibly tired at the end. During one timeout late in the game, several players simply took a knee to catch their breath.
When it needed a big play, though, it got two - Ronde Barber intercepting Campbell to end one drive at the Tampa Bay 28-yard line midway through the fourth quarter and Brian Kelly intercepting Campbell in the Tampa Bay end zone to stop another with 17 seconds to play.
There was also a stuff of Clinton Portis by Derrick Brooks on a fourth-and-1 from the Bucs 4 late in the third quarter. All those plays stopped drives that could have narrowed the Bucs lead to one score or erased it entirely. "They've done an outstanding job all year long, and that's the type of defense you need to have to compete at the high levels," said Garcia, who continues to worry about his offense.
Though he clearly wasn't at his best after returning and replacing his replacement, Garcia didn't do much to aid the Bucs' cause either, the Bucs going three plays and out on both series in the fourth quarter. "It wasn't all that we hoped it would be and wanted it to be," Gruden said of Garcia's return, which came only after Gruden learned Garcia could do no more damage to his back by playing.
Garcia also had to prove to Gruden he was capable of making a difference, and he apparently did that by exercising his back to the point where he could move around and make throws without incident. As Gruden suggested, though, the results weren't encouraging. What's just as discouraging: Garcia says this injury is one he's never experienced before.
Garcia did not appear to take a direct hit to the back on his first-down scramble, making some wonder if he simply wrenched his back. He likened it to a shot to the kidneys, but said he was hit between the lower part of his rib cage and his hip bone.
Either way, the result is a deep bruise that could certainly be aggravated again the next time he plays. Listening to Gruden, though, you get the feeling he has no choice but to play Garcia. "We need him to win; we clearly need Jeff Garcia," Gruden said. "Garcia gives us the best chance to win."
Listening to Garcia, it's hard to argue with Gruden. "It's important that we get better as an offense," he said.
Roy Cummings, The Tampa Tribune 26 November 2007