Routine Matters
Marty Strasen, The Tampa Tribune, published 15 December 2003

National and international news today centered on Saddam Hussein's capture. Hard to argue with that. The local Bucs news focused on Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank meeting with Rich McKay, presumably to hire Tampa Bay's general manager as the builder of his own team's future. For local football fans, this too is priority stuff. So what should we make of a mere football game that happened to take place on a day when most had other things on their minds?

We can say this: Tampa Bay's 16-3 triumph over the Houston Texans at Raymond James Stadium was routine. For the 2003 Bucs, that counts as news in itself. Routine victories have been rare indeed for the defending Super Bowl champs. Perhaps their Sept. 21 win in Atlanta qualified. And maybe their Oct. 26 shutout of Dallas. But when the preseason NFC favorites require 3 1/2 calendar months to post their first back-to-back wins, no victory can truly be called run-of- the-mill.

This one was so routine, it even came with a common surname: Jones. If this was Jon Gruden's first ``statement'' game after it became apparent Tampa was not a big enough town for both him and McKay, the Bucs head coach did his talking with a running back whose progress could be key to the team's offensive future. Thomas Jones carried early and often. He was handed the ball on the Bucs' first three plays, running for 3, 8 and 4 yards. His 18-yard touchdown burst ended the Bucs' season-long scoring drought on opening possessions.

By the time he was through, Jones had his second 100-yard rushing game as a Buc. He carried 34 times for 134 yards, helping the Bucs amass a sizeable 17-minute advantage in time of possession. Jones is not only the most talented back on the Bucs' active roster, he's also an interesting story. The former seventh overall draft choice of the Arizona Cardinals received loads of media attention this college football season in countless feature stories about his younger brother, Notre Dame running back Julius Jones. Julius was declared academically ineligible to play for the Fighting Irish in 2002 and joined Thomas in Arizona, where the younger Jones took courses to boost his grades and sculpted his body in a rigorous weight- training routine with his brother.

While Julius Jones enjoyed a banner return to Notre Dame, Thomas has had his ups and downs since joining the Bucs in an offseason trade. Gruden would begin to involve him in the offense, and a key fumble would land Jones in the doghouse - and back on the sideline. But like his brother, the older Jones has also learned a thing or two about perseverance. Now it's his time to shine. Sunday, Jones fumbled on the opening series, recovering the ball himself. The fact Gruden allowed him to finish the drive with a touchdown run and stuck with him the rest of the way says a lot about where Jones now stands. ``I'm a better back when I get the ball. I'm a better back in the fourth quarter,'' said Jones, who amassed 51 yards on 11 fourth-quarter carries. ``It feels good to be able to get the ball more than eight or nine times in a game. It gives you a chance to get in a zone.''

There were other Bucs standouts Sunday. Playing without an injured Warren Sapp (foot), Tampa Bay's defense registered five sacks and held the Texans without a touchdown. Houston's first-half passing yardage was minus-5. Martin Gramatica gave himself a confidence boost by making three consecutive field goals before having one blocked, and punter Tom Tupa backed up Houston with another strong day at the office.

Offensively, Brad Johnson was an effective 17-for-28 for 237 yards, and Keenan McCardell further stated his case for a spot in the Pro Bowl by topping 1,000 receiving yards for the fifth time in his career. It was Jones with the dirtiest uniform, though, and Jones who figures to see a growing number of days like this. Who knows? They might even become routine. The Bucs sure hope so.