Return To Glory
Go ahead and dream. Dream the impossible. As if there is such a thing anymore. If you weren't a believer already, Micheal Spurlock made you believe anything can happen Sunday. So did the Bucs. Their 37-3 victory against the Falcons locked up another division title, their third in six seasons under Coach Jon Gruden and sixth in 32 seasons overall.

Coming on a disappointing 4-12 finish last year, it might have been the most improbable title of all. Objective observers certainly didn't see it coming. Not like this. Players you never heard of - players Gruden never heard of - have stepped up all season for this team. They have helped the Bucs do what many thought was impossible. Spurlock was just the latest.

Until this time last year, he had never returned a kick. Sunday, he returned one 90 yards for a touchdown. Prior to Sunday, 139 other Bucs had tried to do what Spurlock did. They tried a combined 1,864 times. None had succeeded. It was an infamous record. Now it's history. So is Spurlock. So are the Bucs.

Their victory ended another worst-to-first journey and left them with a 9-5 record with two games to play. Want to dream? Dream about the playoffs. They're real now. A lot still can happen, but the Bucs will host a first-round game, probably against the New York Giants. Beyond that, who knows? Let your imagination run wild. You have the right now. Spurlock gave it to you.

His story isn't a whole lot different than those of Earnest Graham, Greg White or Jovan Haye. The first two also worked their way into the Bucs' record book and the latter closed in during Sunday's victory. Graham became the first Buc to score touchdowns in six consecutive games, and White tied a record for most fumbles forced in a season with seven. Haye moved to within one of the team record for most fumble recoveries in a season with five.

There are others. Quarterback Luke McCown won a critical game for the Bucs at New Orleans two weeks ago; left tackle Donald Penn almost has made us forget that Luke Petitgout was signed to anchor the young offensive line. "We wouldn't be 9-5 without those guys," said cornerback Ronde Barber, who started the rout by picking off quarterback Chris Redman and returning the ball 29 yards for a touchdown three plays into the game. "They're a bunch of guys rising way above everyone's expectations and doing things no one thought they'd do. They've kind of defined this team."

Spurlock epitomizes them. He came aboard long after the season started, a replacement for injured return man Mark Jones and a player with little NFL experience. Now he's a legend, at least in Tampa. Already fueled by Barber's return for a touchdown, Spurlock's kick return served as yet another kick to the gut of a Falcons team that was still feeling the aftershocks of perhaps the worst week in franchise history.

It started with their former starting quarterback and cornerstone, Michael Vick, being sentenced to 23 months in prison for running a dogfighting operation. It continued with their coach quitting on them a day later. The Falcons (3-11) wouldn't use any of that as an excuse, but with the exception of a running attack that rattled off 106 yards on 20 carries, they didn't play a very sharp game.

They threw for 27 yards, never converted a third down and gave the ball away four times on turnovers, including three that resulted in points for a Bucs offense that became very conservative after the first quarter. Sensing that the game was in their hands, the Bucs scaled back their attack and ran the ball 48 times. Even that was effective as they ran for 190 yards while throwing for 109 and a touchdown.

Afterward, Bucs quarterback Jeff Garcia continued to express some concern about his team's ability to capitalize inside the red zone, where the Bucs struggled again Sunday, settling three of five times for field goals. "That was frustrating," Garcia said. "I want to have drives that finish with touchdowns. I want to get in the red zone and score touchdowns and as an offensive we weren't as effective as we want to be. I want our offense to stand up and showcase itself. We can't continue to always rely on the defense and special teams. We need to handle our own business and have our own production."

The offense did produce Sunday, accounting for 23 of the Bucs' 37 points. That and the help they got from the defense and Spurlock allowed them to keep their dream alive of doing something really special. "It's just a credit to the players and the coaches, believing in ourselves and overcoming certain obstacles throughout the season like injuries and situations where people had everything stacked up against us," Garcia said. "But we never listened to what was going on outside of our facility. It's always been about us; we rise and fall together and it's been a great year so far and now we just want to make it better on a weekly basis."

Roy Cummings, The Tampa Tribune 17 December 2007