Griese, Bucs share equally in this letdown
Search his face for the pain, and you will not find it. His features are drawn, weary, but his eyes give away nothing. Long ago, Brian Griese learned to bury emotions deep, down to where the world cannot see. As he stood by his locker on a Sunday afternoon when disappointment came back to visit, Griese's face remained a blank canvas.

Study his voice for the disappointment, and you will come up empty. His voice is a little quieter, perhaps, but it does not quake. He speaks flatly, dispassionately, of the plays that were made and the ones that got away. On a day that tried to make him scream, Griese's voice remained monotone. Do not be fooled. This one hurt. This one was an ice pick to the heart. "This one stings," Griese finally said. "It really does. You just feel bad for the other guys in the locker room."

Griese came tumbling back to earth Sunday afternoon. The game, and the season, rested in his hands and, in 59 miserable seconds, he could not control it. Four minutes to go, and the score was tied. Then Griese threw one to the bad guys, and then he dropped another onto the turf, and in the time it takes for TV to run a tire commercial, the Bucs were down in the game and pretty much out of the season. In other words, Griese picked a perfectly awful time to turn mortal again.

The turnovers, of course, are unforgivable. Griese's game is based on precision and decisions, and in both cases, he didn't measure up. With four minutes to go, you cannot afford an interception to be run back the other way. Period. If you do so, you certainly cannot afford to fumble three plays later. Not in a game that can save a season. Not at a time when great quarterbacks find a way. The interception, in particular, will stick the Bucs for a while. They had clawed their way back uphill, as is their habit, to tie the score.

The Bucs, Jon Gruden would say later, expected the Chargers to blitz on the play. Instead, San Diego fell into a zone. Griese dropped back, looking to his right for Michael Pittman on a slant. He was covered. Griese then looked to Joe Jurevicius in the middle of the field. He was covered. Griese then wheeled and threw, blindly, toward Michael Clayton. He never saw Donnie Edwards, who refused to be looked off the play as Griese studied the other side of the field. Edwards intercepted his second pass of the day and ran 30 yards for the touchdown. "He made a great play," Griese said. "I never saw him."

There you have it. Criticize Griese if you wish. You have certainly waited long enough to do so. On the other hand, perhaps you should criticize the rest of the Bucs for putting so much of the darned game in his hands to start with. Yeah, Griese let the Bucs down Sunday. On the other hand, they did the same thing to him. Look, Griese is a good quarterback who has flirted with very good for the past nine games. But he was never supposed to be a player who lifted a team on his shoulders and carried it. He isn't supposed to pass 50 times. If 392 yards isn't enough, then his team is asking too much.

On Sunday, the Bucs couldn't run. They couldn't kick. They couldn't get LaDainian Tomlinson on the ground or keep penalty flags off. They couldn't cover. One more time, and you can chisel this on their tombstone, they couldn't find a way to salvage a winnable game. What the Bucs did, instead, was place the game on Griese's shoulders. Again. For a while, that was good enough. In the end, it wasn't.

It's a shame, because if the Bucs were in position to salvage their season, it was largely because of the way Griese has salvaged his career. He made this season interesting, at least. If you were thinking about the playoffs Sunday afternoon, if you were comparing Clayton and Joey Galloway with Keyshawn Johnson and Keenan McCardell, it was Griese who allowed you to think it. Yes, he should be the NFL comeback player of the year. Remember the way he was spat out by Denver and thrown away by Miami? Remember that he was the Bucs' third choice?

That was a long time ago, before Griese turned into Lazarus and somehow found a way to settle a team. He has been an effective, efficient quarterback, and if you look at the passing stats, where Griese is third in the NFC and sixth in the NFL in passer ratings, you could make an argument it is a borderline Pro Bowl season. Still, if a team wishes for a quarterback such as Griese to guide it into the playoffs, it had best build a strong running game and an offensive line that gives him time to work. Until the Bucs can build a more effective offensive line, until they can stop adding 25 yards to each of his drives with penalties, until they can make a 30-yard field goal, there are only so many shortcomings a team should expect its quarterback to forgive.

Sunday, Griese messed up. He made a bad throw. He lost his grip. If defeats are like tiny deaths, then this time, Griese was the leading suspect. Time was, he might have flashed a little of his frustration. "I wasn't always like this," Griese said. "I've never taken losing easily. I don't think any competitor does. It's tough. You give everything you have. Then you have to come in here with your head held high and you live to fight another day."

That's the problem with the Bucs' season. It has too often been about another day. On another day, perhaps Griese throws the ball away. On another day, perhaps he doesn't fumble when sacked. On another day, perhaps he gets a little help from his friends.

Gary Shelton The St.Petersburg Times 13 December 2004