QB Chris Simms directed a number of comebacks over the second half of the season, including one that just came up short on Saturday
The network camera zoomed in on Chris Simms' face after his final pass of the 2005 season, a ball that was tipped at the line and subsequently intercepted by Washington Redskins linebacker Marcus Washington.
Simms had just ripped his chin guard off in frustration, as one would expect, but an instant later a smile passed across his face. It was a wry smile, of course; there was no joy in the situation, but certainly there was a feeling of, "What more can happen?" The camera found Tampa Bay Buccaneers Head Coach Jon Gruden a beat later and he could be seen shrugging, half-smiling, expressing the same thought.
The Buccaneers had fought back valiantly from a 17-3 second-half deficit built on two fluky turnover-scores and had come within a bobbled ball of tying the game in the closing minutes. The Bucs' defense was the star of the day, having held Washington to 120 total yards of offense, but a Simms-led offense had also moved the ball well after halftime and nearly completed the comeback. In the end, Tampa Bay had to swallow a 17-10 loss when a potential game-tying 40-yard touchdown pass to Edell Shepherd failed to stand because the ball hit the end zone paint after Shepherd's torso did.
So, there was no comeback, officially. Similarly, the Bucs officially failed to claw back from a 13-3 deficit against the Chicago Bears on November 27 when Matt Bryant's 29-yard field goal try sailed just a few yards wide of the right upright in a 13-10 loss following a very impressive last-minute drive.
In both cases, however, Simms did almost everything he could in the game's most tense moments. In fact, that proved to be Simms' calling card in his first extended period as an NFL starter. He successfully led late comebacks against Washington in the regular season and against Atlanta twice during the Bucs' second-half stretch run. He did pretty much the same thing against Chicago and Washington in the playoffs, just without the final outcome.
So the Bucs are shepherded into the offseason a little more quickly than they had hoped, but the final loss did nothing to diminish Simms' credentials.
"He did some good things, there is no question, against a defense that is pretty stingy and challenging," said Head Coach Jon Gruden. "They played a lot of different combination coverages, made it tough on us to get the ball to [Joey] Galloway. They do a nice job with their four-man rush, applying pressure. What can I say, Chris made some fine plays today. We just didn't get enough done."
What can anyone say? There's not a single statistic about the Bucs' stifling defense or Simms' accurate passing that will make any Buccaneer feel better about Saturday's loss. But, in the same respect, the statistics that appear unimpressive for Tampa Bay from the Wild Card loss aren't necessarily representative of what occurred on Saturday.
Simms, for instance, finished with a passer rating of 56.7, which some analysts might use as evidence that first-time playoff starters are destined for failure. But consider that both of Simms' interceptions were deflected at the line – he said after the game that, had they made it past the outstretched hands at the line, they would have been 20-yard gains – and the potential game-tying TD, a perfectly-thrown ball, was lost on a technicality.
Consider Simms' passer rating had those three situations not gone so hair-width bad for the Buccaneers: 87.4. We're not asking you to accept that Simms' passer rating should have been 87.4, only to consider that a mark of 56.7 doesn't adequately define his efforts on the final day of the Bucs' season.
The point is, Simms didn't wilt under that difficult early deficit and he didn't even seem beaten by his last tipped-ball interception. That confirmed what the team learned about their young passer over his entertaining 11-game stretch as the starter.
"Chris Simms is a fighter, man," said tackle Kenyatta Walker. "He is a fighter; this whole offense is. Like I said, it just did not go our way."
Indeed, the Bucs found out that Simms can win in the NFL, that he has the mental toughness to withstand the game's toughest moments, that he can be a leader of his teammates. The Buccaneers were in many ways defined by their defense in 2005, as has been the case for a solid decade, but they also took on the grit and moxie of their young quarterback in the second half.
"If there is one thing I've known about this team all year long, it is that we continue to fight, no matter what and we did [Saturday]," said Simms. "Obviously, we moved the ball, just not those first three series. But after that we moved the ball pretty well. We just didn't put enough points on the board."
The other three Wild Card games over the weekend were relative blowouts, all decided by two touchdowns or more, none holding any drama in the closing moments. The Bucs' season hinged on one ball sliding around in a player's arms. It was a tough end, but a fitting one, really. The games that didn't come down to tiny fractions of justice this season seemed like the rarity. In the second half of the season, a good number of those situations worked out for the Buccaneers, and in no small part because Chris Simms was usually up to the challenge.
Said linebacker Derrick Brooks, the team's unquestioned leader, of the young quarterback's season: "Him stepping in at a critical time this year – he had to grow up quick and he did."