Team Of Destiny
It was still too early for champagne Sunday. Their 27-23 victory against the Saints at the Superdome guaranteed the Bucs nothing really, save for a finish that will be at least two times better than the one they posted a year ago.

If they so choose, though, the Bucs can pull all the bottles of champagne they want out of their boxes, put them on ice and prepare to pop their corks. They're going back to the playoffs, most likely as NFC South champions.

Nothing short of a complete collapse by the Bucs, who are 8-4 and would have to lose each of their remaining four games, will keep Tampa Bay from reaching the postseason now. And that seems highly unlikely, even if Jeff Garcia never takes another snap.

With Garcia relegated to the sideline by an aching back that he swore again is only bruised, not broken, Luke McCown turned in a relief effort the likes of which the Bucs have not seen in years.

McCown boarded a plane for Tampa late Sunday wishing he hadn't thrown one ball and had thrown another. Beyond that, he turned in a performance that teammates and coaches alike could only marvel at. "I didn't think he'd have that much poise, that much composure," cornerback Ronde Barber said of McCown, who was making his first start for the Bucs and first in nearly three years for any team. "But he was great."

Jon Gruden went a step further, calling McCown's effort "stellar." It seemed an apt adjective, what with McCown completing 29 of 37 passes for 313 yards and two touchdowns, including the game-winner. That came on a 4-yard toss to seldom-used tight end Jerramy Stevens with 14 seconds to play, and it was largely the result of Gruden's refusal to scale back his offense despite having McCown at the helm.

It also helped that Saints coach Sean Payton's aggressiveness backfired and his call for a late reverse led to a fumble that was recovered by the Bucs to set up McCown's game-winning heroics. Though McCown had thrown only four regular-season passes since coming to Tampa Bay in a 2005 draft-day trade, Gruden went after the Saints as if McCown were Brett Favre.

He had him throw on 14 of the first 19 plays he called, and McCown responded by completing each of his first 15 passes, including a 60-yard throw downfield to Joey Galloway that helped the Bucs take a 10-7 lead early in the second quarter. "We had to do that," Gruden said of taking an aggressive offensive approach. "We knew we couldn't come out here and scale it back and try to be one-dimensional and expect to win this game."

It was a risky approach and the Bucs paid for it on a couple of occasions, the most notable being early in the third quarter when McCown changed a play at the line but failed to properly communicate the change to Galloway.

With Galloway running a hitch-and-go while McCown expected a slant, McCown's throw wound up in the arms of Saints corner Mike McKenzie. He promptly returned the ball 53 yards for a touchdown that gave the Saints a 21-20 lead. "It was really just a miscommunication between Joey and me," McCown said. "But we definitely have to clean that up or it's going to come back and bite us at some point."

It looked for a while as if it was going to bite them Sunday. The Bucs tried three times to regain the lead that pick cost them, but all they did was make their deficit larger. Again, it was a combination of Gruden's aggressive play-calling and McCown's inexperience that made them pay. With McCown refusing to throw the ball away after dropping back into his end zone on a second-and-5 play from his own 7, the Saints notched a safety off Will Smith's tackle of McCown just behind the goal line.

That increased the Saints' lead to three points, and it looked like that lead would stand up until Payton made what he said was one of the worst calls he's ever made. Instead of running the ball in a more conventional manner, Payton called for a play in which Reggie Bush would take a handoff and then pitch the ball back to receiver Devery Henderson on an end-around.

Henderson never got the ball. Defensive tackle Jovan Haye fell on it and the takeaway allowed the Bucs to get one more shot at an end zone that McCown quickly had become familiar with. "Probably the worst job I've done as a head coach since I've been here," Payton said. "Obviously, I regret the play call that resulted in a fumble and cost us the game."

It will cost them more than that. It likely will cost the Saints a trip to the playoffs as well, but they might not be lamenting that were it not for at least one more aggressive play call by Gruden.

Faced with a fourth-and-1 at the Saints' 28, Gruden sent his kicking team out onto the field for a field-goal attempt. During the two-minute warning, however, he changed his mind and sent the offense back out. The plan was to run Earnest Graham to the right. It was an approach that had been working all day, Graham having gained 104 yards on 21 carries, most of them to the right, to that point.

It worked this time, too. Graham gained 2 yards and, three plays later, McCown threw the jump ball to Stevens that gave them what seems to be an insurmountable division lead. "I had confidence in us running the power," Gruden said of the decision to go for it in fourth-and-1. "Off our right side, with rookie left guard Arron Sears pulling. You have to make some tough calls in the course of the game, and that was certainly a tough call. But if they can stop that play, I was willing to go home without a win."

Barber called it one of the gutsiest calls he's ever seen Gruden make, adding that it juiced the entire team to see their coach get so aggressive, especially with McCown running the offense. "I love it," said Barber, whose sentiments were echoed by Graham, who along with McCown is one of several players who have stepped up and delivered big plays in clutch situations for the Bucs this year.

"It's a new standard that's been set around here," Graham said. "But it's kind of how this team has been built. We've had a lot of new guys stepping up for us all year. You have to have that to be a good team."

Roy Cummings, The Tampa Tribune 3 December 2007