WR Keenan McCardell had one of the best seasons ever by a Buc receiver, but the year left a 'bitter' taste in his mouth
It was Travis Hall's hand, which batted down Brad Johnson's pass on an attempted two-point conversion against Atlanta, that officially eliminated the Tampa Bay Buccaneers from the 2003 playoff hunt. That was on December 20.
For Buccaneer players, however, it didn't really feel as if it was over then, not as long as there was more football to be played. Tampa Bay had one more game after that 30-28 loss to the Falcons, and it was in Tennessee against a team that was still fighting for a division title and a home playoff game.
So if you think the Bucs just went through the motions in a 33-13 loss to the Titans, think again. The season-finale loss was as painful as any other – okay, perhaps not as painful as the bizarre Carolina and Indianapolis defeats earlier in the year, but difficult nonetheless.
Wide receiver Keenan McCardell, who had one of the best seasons ever for a Buc receiver, only to catch just one pass for three yards in the finale, described the feeling of walking off the field in Tennessee as 'bitter.'
"(Sunday) was the day things sunk in," he said. "When you walk off that field you realize you're not going to the playoffs. We're a 7-9 team, and everything hits you and it doesn't take a night after the last game for it to sink in.
"We expected more out of ourselves. We expected more out of this team, but the page is turned right now. We've got to look at the 2004 season right now. I know things are going to be improved because like good competitors, good fighters, you always come back."
The Buccaneers could ask for nothing more from McCardell than what he gave them in 2003. During a season of turmoil, the 12th-year veteran was easily the team's most consistent performer, and really the only reliable, season-long weapon at wide receiver. The season opened with McCardell in the middle of a three-man crew that also included Keyshawn Johnson and Joe Jurevicius, two receivers who had combined for 113 catches, 1,511 yards and seven touchdowns last season. It ended with him sharing the field with Charles Lee and Edell Shepherd, two players who had zero NFL receptions in 2002.
McCardell was clearly the Bucs' go-to player, one opposing defenses could key on every week, yet he still finished eighth in the NFL in receiving yards (1,174), 10th in receptions (84), and tied for 13th in touchdown receptions (8). Each of those totals was also fourth all-time in Buccaneer history.
Had the Bucs performed better in the red zone this season, McCardell would almost surely have been the first Tampa Bay receiver to reach double figures in touchdowns. He showed how valuable he could be in that part of the field during last year's Super Bowl victory over Oakland, in which he caught two short touchdown passes. As it was in 2003, McCardell usually had to find the end zone from afar, three times setting his own personal record for longest touchdown catch. After grabbing a 74-yarder against Indianapolis, he topped that with a 75-yarder at San Francisco and then a 76-yarder against Atlanta. No Buc receiver had ever had three 70-yard catches in the same season before.
Along the way, McCardell set his own personal record for yards per catch, at 14.0. That is saying something in a career that includes more than 700 catches, 9,000 yards and 50 touchdowns.
McCardell's final numbers for 2003 were far better than what he put up in 2002, his first season as a Buccaneer (61-670-6), but they weren't nearly as satisfying. It's commendable that he picked up his game in a year in which the Bucs had trouble finding any other consistent offensive force, but it wasn't what McCardell had in mind for the Bucs' title-defense season.
Team goals have always been more important to this proven producer, who has long been considered a 'complementary' player, first to Jimmy Smith then to Johnson. Over the final six weeks of 2003, McCardell played the veteran role model to such developing talents as Lee and Shepherd. With those two returning, Jurevicius on the mend and the Bucs set on returning to their 2002 glory, McCardell believes he could be in the middle of a very strong receiving corps in 2004. In fact, he expects the Bucs to make all the right moves to return to prominence.
"We feel like we have a group of guys that can line up with anybody in the league," said McCardell. "We'll get a couple of players and we will get it going. I'm looking forward to having our healthy guys back. I'm not making excuses, but I'm just looking forward to having guys that were hurt (this season) back, like Brian Kelly and Mike Alstott. I'm looking forward to having back the Joe Jureviciuses to help us out, guys that make plays for us. Coach Gruden is going to bring in people that are going to help us out even more and I'm looking forward to it."
McCardell ended that synopsis by pointing the spotlight at himself. While it would be hard to find any fault with his performance in 2003, McCardell insists he can get better. The topic that led to this thought was actually the performance of his quarterback, Brad Johnson, whose interceptions rose precipitously towards season's end. Picks are very uncharacteristic of Johnson, as are one-catch days for McCardell. Before that season finale – in which an injury-plagued Bucs team switched quarterbacks just after halftime – McCardell hadn't had less than five catches in any game since October 19 at San Francisco.
"You never lose faith in a guy like (Johnson)," said McCardell. "He's a fighter. He's a true competitor. I know he's probably not pleased with the way he has played, but there are a lot of people who shouldn't be pleased. I'm not pleased with the way that I played down the stretch. Things could be better. If we all just played better, we would have had more big victories down the stretch."
Whether it be injuries or inconsistency, the Bucs didn't play well enough down the stretch to make it to the playoffs for the fifth straight season. And so it was a bitter feeling to walk off the field in Tennessee, the last test of 2003 over. That's a feeling McCardell will do anything to avoid in 2004.