A suddenly potent return game, starring rookie RB Clifton Smith, has helped the Bucs rally from double-digit deficits
It's not how you start, it's how you finish. Down, but not out. All's well that ends well.
Take your pick of any of these sayings; they all describe the 2008 Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Historically, no Buccaneers team has proven as adept at staying poised in the face of adversity, fighting back from behind and putting together big comebacks, especially on the road.
Sunday's win at Detroit – in which the Bucs overcame a first-quarter 17-0 deficit by putting up 35 unanswered points of their own – tied for the second-largest comeback for victory in team history and set the club record for the largest deficit ever overcome in regulation.
This came just three weeks after the Bucs posted the largest come-from-behind win in franchise history by fighting back from a 21-point deficit in an overtime win in Kansas City, and just nine weeks after the Bucs toppled the Bears in overtime in Chicago after trailing by 10 with just five minutes left in the game.
That makes it three times already this year that the Bucs have overcome a deficit of double digits to win. Prior to this season, the last time a Tampa Bay team had done that was back in 1999.
"I think our three road victories – at least in my perception – have been dramatic victories, really," Gruden said. "Down by 10 in Chicago on our own 20-yard line, I think, with five minutes left, we find a way to win. Down 24-3 in Arrowhead, down 17 yesterday – this team has a lot of poise and confidence in one another. Really, I just give them a lot of credit. Our coaches hang in there, nobody panics, and our guys have delivered some clutch plays when we've needed them."
Gruden kept things positive by praising his team for their never-say-die attitude, but his players were a little more self-critical.
As beneficial as their fighting spirit may be, they'd much rather not put themselves in such situations quite so often. As the schedule turns over from late November into December (and hopefully January and February), such early holes will only get increasingly more difficult – if not impossible – to crawl back out of.
"The only good part is that we have a very resilient team that really can overcome a very big challenge," center Jeff Faine said. "Then there's a lot of bad. Getting behind early huge on two teams in my mind that we should be able to go up there and play well against and match up well against, to put ourselves behind the eight ball like we did in Detroit and Kansas City, is something that we cannot do going down the stretch.
"It's something that we cannot do preparing for the playoffs, getting into the playoffs and in the playoffs. It's something that we've got to fix now and we've got to fix it quick and it's something that just can't be accepted here."
Added linebacker Barrett Ruud: "You don't want to fall behind. It's not like it's a good thing. It proves that we've got some character and we play well after the first quarter, but we definitely need to get off to better starts. You don't need to be behind 17-0 very often."
But just what is it about this team that has allowed them to come back time after time? A stingy defense that can shut down opponents after they've jumped out to a lead while the offense gets its bearings surely helps. A suddenly-potent return game, bolstered by out-of-nowhere rookie running back Clifton Smith, has aided with field position and even by putting some special teams points on the scoreboard. A gritty veteran quarterback in Jeff Garcia who excels at limiting mistakes and leading hurry-up drives has proven invaluable.
The list goes on and on, but above all else is a factor that isn't as easy to quantify, but may be the most important – an innate confidence and trust in one another.
"I think there is a belief within this team that no matter what the situation is, we still have a chance," Faine said. "Me personally, on the sideline 17 down, I'm still joking around and still having fun and still loose. There's no reason to get tight. I think for most of the team it's the same way. I think that comes with a confidence that we're still in this game. We have a defense that can shut down teams, we have a defense that can score, we have special teams that are now scoring and an offense that when we are clicking, we are clicking good and we can move the ball. I think that confidence is what keeps us relaxed on the field and keeps us in games and keeps our head in the games."
"We were talking about that last night, actually," added Ruud. "Even when we were down 17-0, nobody was panicking and everybody was just relaxed. Everybody was kind of upset that we got in that position, but nobody was panicking, nobody was in fear that we were going to lose the game. It was just a matter of time before we got back into it."
As proficient as the Bucs have proved to be at closing out tight games this year, they'll now have to focus on closing out the season itself as they head into the stretch run.
With a trio of games against NFC South opponents on deck that may very likely settle the fight for the division title, the Bucs must now use the lessons they've learned in their crazy comebacks to put the finishing touches on a second-straight division title.
And just like some late-game heroics this year have required a high amount of focus, dedication and resolve, finishing the season strong will also test the Bucs' mettle.
It all starts Sunday against New Orleans.
"I think that we have the kind of team that has proven that they are going to concentrate at the task at hand, and I think that they did that again [Sunday]," Gruden said. "We are fighting through a lot of issues, a lot of tough issues on our team. We have a tough schedule ahead. We know that we really have to be a day-to-day, snap-to-snap, concentrating type of team. We have to play great to win. We want to play great, we are determined to do that and I think our team's focus is one of the strengths that we have here. We are a focused bunch and have a lot of pride in the details.
"We'll just operate on a day-by-day, snap-by-snap, week-by-week basis. I know it sounds clichéd, but if we can take care of business and find a way to win and close out the third quarter [of the season] with four straight wins, that's a great accomplishment in pro football."