He gathered the kickoff at the goal line and before the play ended, it reminded you of all the Bucs' late-season runs. The start was slow, and halfway through the trip, he stumbled, almost fell but somehow refused to be knocked off his feet. It was made with more desperation and determination than execution and excellence.
Although it fell short of the end zone and history, Aaron Stecker's 86-yard return of the opening kickoff Sunday against the Saints signaled that the Bucs are still playing with purpose. "How many tackles did he break in that thing? It would've been easy for him to go down, he almost slipped the first part of the run," Ronde Barber said. "The desire, the resolve, the urgency to make a play and do your part, it stood out today. He's just one example of it."
There were plenty of others in Tampa Bay's 48-21 rout of the Saints at Raymond James Stadium. Mike Alstott rushed for 101 yards and a touchdown. Brad Johnson threw three touchdowns to as many different receivers. And Barber set a club record with three interceptions, returning the last 36 yards for a touchdown.
The victory, coming off a 24-point road loss to Chicago, improved the Bucs to 8-6 and put them in control of the final NFC wild-card spot. A win Saturday night against the Ravens, coupled with a loss or tie by Atlanta against Miami on Sunday, would send the Bucs to the playoffs, as would a victory against the Eagles on Jan. 6.
"It's a relief to know we don't have to count on somebody else winning now," said Tony Dungy after watching the Bucs tie a club record for points in a game. "That's what I told the team, it's not like the BCS where you've got to hope somebody votes you in. We can control it. Here we are, we know if we win our two games, we're in."
Stecker, who was filling in for injured kickoff returner Frank Murphy, saw to that early. The Bucs had gone 1,537 kickoffs without returning one for a touchdown when he made Saints linebacker Sedrick Hodge miss, bounced outside and ran through the tackle of place-kicker Toby Gowin, reversed field and picked up a block by Rabih Abdullah on Fred Weary before finally being dragged down at the New Orleans 14-yard line by Michael Lewis, just called up from the practice squad.
The play set up Johnson's 14-yard touchdown pass to Karl Williams, who was given the start Sunday ahead of Jacquez Green. Barber then intercepted the first pass by Saints quarterback Aaron Brooks, setting up Alstott's 1-yard touchdown run. Just 66 seconds into the game, the Saints trailed 14-0. By halftime, it was 30-0 and the Bucs had out gained New Orleans 269-34 while limiting it to one first down. By the end of the third quarter, it was 33-7.
Johnson tossed touchdowns to Dave Moore and Warrick Dunn, who regained his feet after slipping and still reached the end zone with a 17-yard screen pass. But it was Stecker's kickoff return that ignited the Bucs. "I thought that really gave our whole stadium a lift but it kind of exemplified what our team was about today," Dungy said. "Aaron broke a bunch of tackles on that. It wasn't the prettiest return, in terms of being clean, but a lot of guys with a lot of effort making a lot of extra blocks, breaking tackles and that's what we needed today. That's what you need in all these games down the stretch."
The Bucs made several adjustments on offense. They spread out New Orleans' defense by emptying the backfield on third down in an attempt to slow the pass rush. And Johnson spread the ball around like a point guard rather than relying solely on receiver Keyshawn Johnson. "I said, "Get the other guys involved,' " Keyshawn Johnson said. "Who cares if I come out of this game with a catch. Just get them involved and we'll worry about it later on."
Dungy praised the plan of beleaguered offensive coordinator Clyde Christensen. "I think it was a little bit of a concerted effort (to spread the ball around) because we made the point that we're going to need everybody today," Dungy said. "I thought Clyde did a good job. We had some things in to throw the ball quick to a lot of different guys. We did go to some other guys other than Keyshawn early on third down. Brad did a good job of finding guys quick and not holding the ball. This team can really rush the passer. We'd seen that and knew we'd have to counteract that."
The Bucs also went primarily with Alstott at tailback running behind rookie Jameel Cook at fullback, a combination that produced only the second 100-yard rushing day by a player since they beat Minnesota on Oct. 28. Alstott's runs also were inspiring. His 15-yard run in the second quarter prompted the 65,526 at RJS to count, in unison during the replay, the eight tackles that Alstott broke. "(The Saints) coming off a Monday night, we were able to wear them down a little bit," Dungy said. "They didn't have Norman Hand (defensive tackle, right foot sprain), which that led to our thinking of going up at them inside, also. That went into our thinking."
The rest of the scoring came courtesy of four field goals by Martin Gramatica, who strained the hamstring in his right (kicking) leg on the final one and will be evaluated later in the week. John Lynch kicked off in the fourth quarter and the Bucs plan to work out place-kickers this week in case Gramatica cannot play.
Since 1996, Tampa Bay is 12-1 at home (9-0 at RJS) in December. "Our death has been greatly exaggerated, my friend," said Warren Sapp, who helped the defense allow one first down in the first half. "We've still got a lot of air in this ball club and a lot of good players, and we're going to keep plugging. It was head to head. It was either them going or us going. You can't have a better situation than that in this league. The team that you're facing, for the last playoff spot, coming into your house and they've got to beat you? It's not going down, daddy. It's not going down."