DE Steve White is one of the lesser-publicized Bucs who have come up with big plays during the stretch run
When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers beat the Cincinnati Bengals on December 2, it was Pro Bowl safety John Lynch who came up with the crucial turnover in overtime. A week later, when the Bucs needed a final-minute drive to beat the then-winless Detroit Lions, it was Brad Johnson-to-Keyshawn Johnson on the thrilling, game-winning touchdown pass.
Big-name players making big plays. That's seemingly just what the Bucs need at this time of the season.
In reality, however, that's not nearly enough.
Since 1997, the Buccaneers are 11-5 in regular-season contests played after December 1, with all 16 of those games played within the fire of a tight playoff race. Why? Well, Tony Dungy's calming influence has probably played a role, as has good Florida practice weather, veteran leadership, strong offseason conditioning and star players who enjoy the limelight.
But if any one thing has characterized the Bucs' knack for finding a way to win when their backs have been against the wall, it has been their ability to muster contributions from every corner of the 53-man roster.
"We've had everybody step up in the past, everyone realizes how critical it is and obviously your big players have to play well," said Dungy. "But sometimes your lift comes from other guys and that really comes from all 53 guys really working themselves hard preparing themselves to play and that's what we are trying to do."
The past two late-season stretch runs provide ample evidence. Last December 10 in Miami, clutch kicker Martin Gramatica nailed a 46-yard, fourth-quarter field goal in a driving rain to give the Bucs a crucial, 16-13 victory. But Gramatica would not have been in that familiar position if not for the input of low-profile linebacker Jamie Duncan, who returned an interception for a touchdown and recovered the fumble that led to Gramatica's game-winner.
A week earlier, against the Bills (in a November game, technically, but still a 'must-win' situation), it was a Karl Williams punt-return touchdown that turned a close game into a 31-17 Bucs victory.
In 1999, the hero-a-week trend was even more pronounced. Rookie quarterback Shaun King, forced into the starting role after injuries to Trent Dilfer and Eric Zeier, played extremely well but probably couldn't have carried the team to the NFC Championship Game without such varied contributors as John Davis, Brad Culpepper, Kevin McLeod, Damien Robinson, Donnie Abraham and Dave Moore.
It was Davis, for instance, who caught the game-winning touchdown in the playoff comeback over Washington on January 15 despite having just two receptions during the entire regular season. Then there was Robinson's two-interception effort in a narrow win over Green Bay in December and fullback McLeod's first career touchdown – heck, first career reception two weeks earlier in a hard-fought victory over Detroit.
When the Bucs clinched the NFC Central title with a win in Chicago on January 2, it was a White fumble recovery that set up Moore's game-clinching touchdown. White, in fact, went on to win Defensive Player of the Week honors in that win over Washington and had an interception on the Rams' first drive in the NFC Championship Game a week later.
"I think when you get into this type of situation whether it's playoff games, or games late in the year, must-win games, you've got to get everyone involved," said Dungy. "Your big plays can come from anyone. We've had them that way in the past, and hopefully we'll have it that way in the future. No you can't rely on one runner or one receiver or one defensive player to win games."
Who might step up for the Bucs in this final three-game home stand is a mystery waiting to be unwrapped. Perhaps rookie fullback Jameel Cook with a key block or defensive tackle Anthony McFarland with a sack and forced fumble. First-year wide receiver Frank Murphy has been close to springing a kickoff return for big yards; maybe he'll recover from his ankle injury in time to win a game for the Buccaneers.
The challenge for the Bucs' coaching staff, then, is to get 53 men focused fully on the task ahead. The team's six losses, probably about twice what was expected at this point, have usually been the results of a variety of breakdowns, not necessarily attributable to the same player or same unit from week to week. Should the team expect another round of emerging late-season heroes on a roster that has struggled for consistency all season?
"You just have to understand that's what wins and loses these type of games," said Dungy. "You're playing evenly matched teams and you're playing good teams. We're going to be playing against teams that are going to be fighting for playoff spots or teams that are in the playoffs. So you can't afford that and any mistake can be the end of your season. You can't go out and play scared or nervous but you have to be zeroed in on your job or your assignment and know how critical it is."
Indeed, the right assignment performed at the right time could end up being the play that saves the Bucs' season.