Rookie K Martin Gramatica has given the Bucs a new weapon in close games
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are a young team, the second-youngest in the NFL when the year began, but there might be a few more gray hairs underneath those pewter helmets after this season. Tampa Bay, once a team that had no clue how to climb out of a hole, has developed a never-say-die attitude in a stunningly short period of time.
From mid-1993 to mid-1999, the Buccaneers won a total of three games in which they trailed by 10 or more points. Since November 21 of this season, a span of less than two months, the Bucs have erased double-digit deficits and gone on to win three times. That includes last Saturday's NFC Divisional Playoff Game, in which the Bucs' were trailing 13-0 with just five minutes left in the third quarter before pulling out an astounding 14-13 win over the Washington Redskins. It marked the first time in Washington's 68-year history that the Redskins have lost a playoff game in which they led after the third quarter.
"It's just a matter of guys playing with a great deal of will and desire," said Head Coach Tony Dungy on Monday. "That's the type of team that we have. Hopefully, we won't get down 10 points or more that many times to have it happen again, but I think it's just a testament to the mental makeup of the team."
Not every game has been such a cardiac strain for the Buccaneers and their fans, but Saturday's win marks the fifth time the team has won this season when it trailed at halftime. In contrast, Buccaneer opponents are 1-7 this year when they trail at halftime and 0-9 when they're down to the Bucs entering the final period. Tampa Bay has also won six times when their opponents have scored first.
Part of the reason Tampa Bay has been able to claw back from such deficits is this: the team rarely allows a negative situation to snowball, with the 45-0 loss at Oakland being the obvious exception. Nearly 40 percent of the 235 points the Buccaneers allowed in the regular season were scored in the first quarter, which is in stark contrast to usual NFL scoring patterns. The other 30 league teams combined made the first quarter the lowest-scoring period of the four, allowing approximately 20% of their points in the first quarter.
What this means, in relation to the Buccaneers, is that the team has adjusted well to early problems. Tampa Bay outscored its opponents 236-146 from the second quarter on during the regular season and allowed its opponents just over six points on average in the second half. Washington actually scored 10 points against the Buccaneers in the second half last Saturday, thanks mostly to a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, but managed just 26 yards of total offense.
That season-long second-half dominance has spawned a confidence among the Buccaneers' players in any game that remains close. "A couple of years ago, we probably wouldn't have pulled this one out," said Derrick Brooks of the victory over the Redskins. "We've been doing this all year long. We're a great second-half team, and when we came in at halftime we knew it wasn't over. Even after the kickoff return, I knew we still had a chance."
Brooks had the comfort of recent memories of similar Buccaneer comebacks. Against Atlanta on November 21, the Falcons scored on each of their first two possessions to take a quick 10-0 lead. The Falcons drove down the field rather easily on Tampa Bay on each of their two first-quarter possessions, but were allowed just 80 yards and three first downs the remainder of the game. Atlanta still took a 10-6 lead into the final six minutes of the game, but K Martin Gramatica hit a 50-yard field goal with five minutes remaining and a 53-yarder with 58 seconds left to put the Bucs on top. CB Donnie Abraham tacked on a 47-yard interception return for a touchdown to produce a 19-10 Bucs win.
Gramatica, who made 27 of 32 field goals, including three of four from 50 yards and beyond, has given the Buccaneers a reliable long-range option in close games. The Bucs haven't relied on the field goal in every tight contest, however.
Three weeks after beating Atlanta, Detroit opened up in the same fashion in Raymond James Stadium, scoring on both of their first-quarter drives to take a 10-0 lead. The Lions remained ahead, 16-9, in the fourth quarter, but two Mike Alstott touchdowns, the second set up by a John Lynch interception, delivered a 23-16 Tampa Bay win and sole possession of first place in the NFC Central. The Bucs also trailed at halftime in big December wins over Green Bay and Minnesota.
And the Bucs have come up with most of these late-game heroics with a rookie at the helm. QB Shaun King, the team's second-round draft pick last April, took over at the helm in the second half of the Bucs' win at Seattle (11/28) and has already presided over four second-half comeback wins, each of them crucial. While King has already shown a knack for making the big play in crunch time, as he did with his leaping one-yard TD pass to TE John Davis in the fourth quarter against Washington, he knows that he's had plenty of help from a determined defense. "People have been saying that we're not a very good comeback team," said King after the Detroit victory in December, "but I didn't pay any attention. I've got so many great players around me and such a great defense that I knew we'd have a chance in the fourth quarter."
He had similar comments after the Washington tilt. "I'm not all that surprised," said King. "They've played defense like that all season and that gives me a lot of confidence, knowing that we're always in every ballgame."
Even, sometimes, when it seems like they're not. The Buccaneers most assuredly do not want to dig an early hole against the St. Louis Rams in the NFC Championship Game, particularly in the noisy Trans World Dome. However, they are also unlikely to let an early deficit to mess with their heads, even if it does put a little strain on some hearts out there.