Return to glory
History will record that Micheal Spurlock covered just 90 yards to return a kickoff for a touchdown Sunday. But really, the distance was much longer. It took nearly 32 seasons and 1,865 tries by 140 players since Tampa Bay's inaugural season in 1976. Those players carried the hopes of a franchise 37,395 yards - more than 21 miles.

But against the Atlanta Falcons, Spurlock gathered a kick at the Bucs 10-yard line, ducked behind the wedge, burst through a hole near the middle of the field and walked a tightrope down the right sideline until he ran into the history books. It figures.

In a season where so many players have gone from zeroes to heroes, a former quarterback plucked off another roster and with two stints on the practice squad makes the biggest play in a 37-3 rout to help the Bucs clinch their second NFC South title in three years.

"Somebody that nobody knew about - it's a great story for us," cornerback Ronde Barber said of Spurlock's feat. "It really typifies what this year has been: guys stepping up and coming out of nowhere. Greg White. Tanard Jackson, a rookie. Those kinds of stories are all over our team, and it's part of the reason we are where we are this year."

Where the Bucs are is 9-5 and holding the No. 4 seed in the NFC if the playoffs started today. Seattle (9-5), which lost to Carolina 13-10 on Sunday, owns the tiebreaker for the No. 3 seed because it beat Tampa Bay. Spurlock's first-quarter kickoff return helped give the Bucs a 14-3 lead and set off a wild celebration at Raymond James Stadium.

And it came just moments after Barber had set the tone on the third play of the game by returning an interception of Falcons quarterback Chris Redman 29 yards for a touchdown. The two plays took the fight out of the Falcons (3-11), reeling from a week that included suspended quarterback Michael Vick being sentenced to 23 months in prison for running a dog fighting ring, a loss to New Orleans last week and the abrupt resignation Tuesday of coach Bobby Petrino, who accepted the coaching job at Arkansas. "It's definitely a battered team over there. A team in the dumps, really," Barber said. "We wanted to keep them there."

Playing under interim coach Emmitt Thomas, the Falcons were dominated in every phase of the game. Tampa Bay's defense forced four turnovers and allowed just 133 total yards. At one point late in the third quarter, Redman had completed as many passes to Falcons receivers (two) as he had to Bucs defensive backs (interceptions by Barber and Jermaine Phillips). He finished 4-of-15 for 34 yards and a passer rating of 0.0.

The performance of the defense, and Spurlock's kickoff return, overshadowed the return of quarterback Jeff Garcia, who missed the past two games with a lower back contusion. Garcia (15-of-25 for 109 yards with one touchdown and one interception) spent most of the day handing off to Earnest Graham, who set a club record by scoring a touchdown in his sixth straight game.

But by far, the afternoon belonged to Spurlock, who wasn't signed to the active roster until Nov. 1. A lot of emotions stirred as Spurlock blurred past the Tampa Bay sideline. Special teams coach Rich Bisaccia thought about his father, who died two years ago this week. "I ran down until I hit my knees," Bisaccia said. "I ran down as far as they would let me."

Jon Gruden prepared for the worst. "I just assumed he would step out of bounds or something would happen," he said. "I'm being serious."

Michael Clayton and Anthony Becht said they whiffed on their blocks but heard the crowd explode. Bucs vice president Ed Glazer heard the crowd and wondered what had happened because he was in the restroom, said his brother, Joel. "What was going through my mind?" Joel Glazer said. "I thought he was going to be tackled at the 1-yard line. I was jumping up and down. That just typifies the whole year - people stepping up, stepping in. Spurlock wasn't on the field at the beginning of the year. But again, it's just goal No. 1."

In March, as Joel Glazer talked about the disappointment of a 4-12 season in 2006 and his coach on the hot seat, he said his family wanted to see the franchise headed in the right direction. "It's exactly what we wanted to see," Joel Glazer said Sunday. "A lot of young guys starting to step up, a young offensive line, defensive linemen, safeties - it's been a lot of fun to watch this year so far."

It's a new year. With at least one happy return.

Rick Stroud, The St.Petersburg Times 17 December 2007