The debate, already more than a week old, now will rage on for months, maybe even years to come. It could rage on forever because Jon Gruden forever will be asked to defend his decision to rest so many regulars down the stretch this season. He will now because the New York Giants spent the better part of Sunday afternoon blowing holes in his theory that the Bucs wouldn't grow rusty as a result of the extensive rest he gave them the previous two weeks.
Though they started fast, particularly on defense, the Bucs struggled to find any semblance of rhythm during a 24-14 NFC playoff loss in which well-rested quarterback Jeff Garcia seemed the rustiest of all.
Garcia, who had played seven quarters of football and had thrown 45 passes the previous six weeks, finished the day with a passer rating of 60.5, his third worst of the season. He completed an acceptable 23 of 39 passes and threw one touchdown pass, but he also threw two interceptions, including one in the end zone, and never developed a good connection with top receiver Joey Galloway.
Galloway, who also missed extensive playing time and practice time the past few weeks, had eight passes thrown to him, but caught just one for 9 yards in the first quarter. Galloway's struggles were attributed in part to a shoulder injury he is said to have aggravated. Garcia's play, meanwhile, and that of the rest of the Bucs was attributed mostly to the work of the Giants (11-6), who advanced to play at Dallas next Sunday. Tampa Bay finishes 9-8.
Gruden said the Giants did a superb job pressuring Garcia into throws and decisions he didn't want to make while again defending his decision to rest a battle-weary team for two weeks after securing a playoff berth.
"We really didn't have a choice, OK," Gruden said of playing his regulars for a half, at best, the past two weeks. "People can question it, but we tried to get Galloway and left guard Arron Sears and a number of other guys to the game Sunday. The best way to do that was to give them an opportunity to rest and heal. I'll be happy to take the criticism for that. We didn't lose the game becaue of what occurred last week. There are plenty of people who would have handled it the same way I'm sure."
A lot of former NFL coaches, including former Bears coach Mike Ditka and former Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson, supported Gruden's decision to rest his players down the stretch. But the Bucs lost three of their last four games and that left Gruden open to criticism because many wondered if Tampa Bay would be able to regain its momentum once the playoffs started.
Judging by the way the game started, that didn't appear to be a problem. The Bucs stuffed the Giants on each of their first three possessions and scored on their second to take a 7-0 lead.
All that changed in the second quarter. The Giants scored on each of their first two second-quarter drives to take a 14-7 lead, and when Micheal Spurlock fumbled away the second-half kickoff, the Giants took full control. "That fumble was huge; that was the play of the day I think," said Gruden, whose record in playoff games since taking the Bucs to the Super Bowl slipped to 0-2. "That was a big play in this game."
The only play that might have been bigger was the first of Garcia's two interceptions. He was throwing deep into the end zone for Galloway one drive later, but backup cornerback Corey Webster picked off the under-thrown pass. Coming just one series after the Giants had turned their takeaway on the kickoff into a field goal and a two-score lead, it pretty much robbed the Bucs of any chance of regaining their lost momentum and winning.
Like Gruden, Garcia refused to blame that play or any other on the fact he played so little the past few weeks. According to Garcia, the Giants did an excellent job of pressuring him into mistakes. "I felt good about things all day long," Garcia said. "It's just that they were doing a great job creating pressure, getting after and mixing up blitzes at an inopportune time and frustrating us."
The Bucs defense got frustrated, too. The Bucs did a good job stopping the Giants' running game, which was their top objective, but they struggled to stop quarterback Eli Manning. He finished with a 117.1 passer rating, completing 20 of 27 passes, the longest of which was a rare 21-yard pass downfield to wide receiver Steve Smith.
Manning threw mostly dump-offs over the middle and quick slants across the line to an array of pass catchers whose job was to attack the middle of the defense and make yards after the catch.
No one did that better than Amani Toomer, the veteran wideout who caught seven balls for 74 yards, including one for a touchdown and two on third downs.
"He didn't go deep on us or beat us over the top," Barrett Ruud said of Manning. "He just made those little annoying third-down conversions when he needed to. On third-and-8, he'd get 8 1/2 yards. That was frustrating and in the second half, our run defense wasn't good enough. It's hard to win when you don't stop the run."
It's hard to win when you struggle in the red zone, too. A unit that ranked in the lower third of the league in red-zone defense struggled again Sunday, allowing New York to score three touchdowns in four red-zone chances. Third downs also were a problem for the Bucs defense. They started strong in that area, but wound up allowing the Giants to convert 42 percent of their critical third-down plays.
"It wasn't rust; we just didn't play well," Ruud said. "The question is always going to be did we get too much rest or should we have played more, but I think Bill Parcells said it best. 'You're not right unless you win.'"
Roy Cummings, The Tampa Tribune 7 January 2008