McCown Passes His Way Into Fans' Hearts With Effort
Luke McCown didn't find out for sure he was playing against New Orleans on Sunday until the night before the game. With a chance to all but clinch the NFC South with a victory, the Bucs turned to a quarterback who hadn't started a game since 2004. This is not exactly how you would choose to enter a fray of this magnitude.

McCown has been the Bucs' third-team quarterback for most of this season. He had played only a few snaps in the season's opening game. He couldn't have been more faceless, at least to the public. But his teammates knew something, even if the rest of us didn't.

"He has all the qualities," running back Earnest Graham said. "He's a competitor. It wasn't something that was new to us as a team. I think he knew he was ready for the opportunity to present himself."

So there McCown stood at the New Orleans Saints' 4-yard line with 14 seconds to play, out of timeouts and the Bucs trailing by three points. And what does he do when presented with such an opportunity? Nothing much, except finish off a magnificent afternoon by throwing a touchdown pass to Jerramy Stevens to secure a 27-23 victory. McCown - playing for injured Jeff Garcia - passed his way into the hearts of Bucs fans. He completed 29 of 37 passes for 313 yards and two touchdowns. He hit his first 15 throws.

He scrambled twice for 34 yards and kept several other plays alive with his ability to float in the pocket and buy time. He overcame mistakes - including a couple of doozies that resulted in nine points for the Saints. "Now I can expect a lot more," Jon Gruden said. "That's what's really exciting."

No one thought much about it when the Bucs sent a sixth-round pick in the 2005 draft to Cleveland for McCown. They thought even less of it when McCown spent last year recuperating from a leg injury and waiting, waiting, waiting.

But he also has an inner strength and confidence that his teammates have come to appreciate. Put it this way: he didn't look a guy who hadn't played. "The way he called the plays, the way he was poised in the huddle, the decisions he made, it was all outstanding," center John Wade said.

Although Gruden said Garcia was "pounding on his door" Sunday morning for a chance to play, it was the right call - and would have been the right call, even if McCown had bombed. Garcia also mentioned that "I'm ready to go next week and hopefully for the rest of the year" but the Bucs have time to let him completely heal now. Plus, it wouldn't be a bad idea to let McCown shake off some more rust with another start or two.

The rust showed when he and Joey Galloway weren't on the same page with an audible call late in the third, resulting in an interception and 53-yard return for a touchdown by Saints corner Mike McKenzie. Then with 3:44 to play, McCown was trapped in his own end zone. He should have thrown the ball away but didn't and was caught for a safety.

We'd be remiss for not giving credit to two other individuals who figured large in the Bucs' win. One is Saints head coach Sean Payton, whose brain-dead call of a reverse with about three minutes left resulted in a fumble that Jovan Haye recovered. And then there was Gruden. After the fumble, on fourth-and-1 at the Saints' 28, he sent on the field-goal unit as the 2-minute warning hit. Gruden changed his mind during the delay and put the game in Graham's hands even though his starting center (Wade) and blocking back (B.J. Askew) were temporarily sidelined with physical problems.

The gamble worked when Graham gained 2 yards. "We did not come here to not win," Galloway said.

It still came down to a play that McCown had to make. A lot of things could have gone wrong. He could have been sacked. Could have been intercepted. Could have fumbled. Instead, he threw the pass where only Stevens could catch it. It was the only way this story could end for McCown, a man of deep faith for whom the word "devout" was no doubt invented. "I think God has a specific plan for me," he said. "I lean on his timing, not mine."

The clock said 14 seconds. The Superdome was rocking. A championship was there to be all but claimed, and against the Saints of all teams. For Luke McCown, it was time.

Joe Henderson, The Tampa Tribune 3 December 2007