A 23-yard fourth-down catch by WR Bert Emanuel was erased by a delay-of-game penalty
On Sunday in St. Louis, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers lost to the Rams 11-6 despite holding a 6-5 lead with just five minutes to play. That marked the first time all season that the Bucs had surrendered a fourth-quarter lead; unfortunately, since it was the NFC Championship Game, it will also be the last. Such a heartrending loss brings every critical play into sharp focus, and Tampa Bay Head Coach Tony Dungy was asked about many of those key moments on Monday afternoon at his day-after-the-game press conference.
Foremost on most minds was a late-game replay reversal that turned an apparent Bert Emanuel catch at the Rams' 23 into an incompletion. While the reversal obviously put the Buccaneers into a more difficult situation at third-and-23, Dungy firmly resisted the notion that there was blame to share for his team's loss.
"Those things happen, really," said Dungy. "We let it get to that situation, and we needed not to get to that point. That would be the best way to handle it, for us to take care of business and keep the lead and not get to where we are relying on a call by an official.
"They told me that the ball hit the ground, so that is what we have to live with. As I said, we really shouldn't have let it get to that point and we can't blame the officials. We have no one to blame but ourselves. I think if we did our job appropriately, we wouldn't have gotten into that situation."
There was no dispute over another important Tampa Bay play that was disallowed. Early in the fourth quarter, after a Brian Kelly interception had given the Buccaneers possession inside St. Louis territory, Tampa Bay faced a fourth-and-three at the Rams' 35. The Buccaneers chose to go for the first down, and appeared to have it when Emanuel picked up 23 yards on a crossing route over the middle. However, the play clock expired just before the ball was snapped, resulting in a delay-of-game penalty that wiped out the gain. The Bucs subsequently punted.
"It was hard to hear," said Dungy. "We actually got out of the huddle on time but just didn't get the ball snapped quick enough. It just barely hit zero-zero, and that's one of the advantages of playing at home in the playoffs. You get the noise and there are communications problems and unfortunately, we just got that one off about a half second late."
Dungy was also asked whether he considered going for a field goal from the 35 with strong-legged kicker Martin Gramatica. "Yes, we thought about it," he said, "but we had a play that we thought could be very good in that situation and it was. Looking back, you can always second-guess yourself. We had a couple of shots to get Martin in range and just didn't do it. But we thought we had a very good play for that situation."
Of course, not every critical play went against the Buccaneers' efforts. The first play from scrimmage, in fact, resulted in a Steve White interception that gave Tampa Bay the chance to put the game's first points on the board. The Bucs capitalized with a quick field goal and also set the tone for what would become a dominant defensive effort against the league's top-rated offense. However, Dungy didn't get the impression that St. Louis was stunned or discouraged by the early takeaway.
"Not really," he said. "I think they thought it was kind of a fluky play, and they would be ready to go the next time. I think there was a little surprise at halftime on their part, but they have a good offense and they made a couple of big plays in the second half and made the big play when they needed to. That's the difference between being in the Super Bowl and not being in, and somehow we've got to be able to make those big plays in the fourth quarter."
His squad did make big plays on special teams throughout Sunday's contest, including a tackle of kick returner Tony Horne at the 13-yard line in the second half and four fine punt returns by WR Karl Williams. After an extremely uncharacteristic 100-yard kickoff return was surrendered to Washington's Brian Mitchell in the Bucs' Divisional Playoff Game, the Bucs were determined to win the kicking battle in the NFC Championship Game.
"We took the challenge against St. Louis," said Dungy. "Everyone says you can't kick to them, don't kick down the middle, kick away from their returners. We had a lot of confidence in our coverage guys and they did a great job yesterday."
Monday's media session with Dungy ended after approximately 20 minutes, but there will be ample time in the coming weeks for further discussion of Sunday's game. There will certainly be lessons learned from the narrow loss, but at the moment, the result is mostly disappointment and regret. Dungy's not sure there is much he can do about those feelings among his players.
"There really isn't anything to say at this point, because they realize that we had a golden opportunity and we let it get away," said Dungy. "So it has to die down by itself, and probably all week when we are reading in the paper about St. Louis and everything they're doing at the Super Bowl, it will be tough to take.
"Hopefully, that will drive us for next year."