K Martin Gramatica had several reasons to celebrate on Sunday
The game hadn't even started yet, but Tampa Bay Buccaneers Head Coach pulled an unusual strategic move on Sunday afternoon.
With his team set to face the Green Bay Packers in what seemed like a do-or-die game, Dungy had the relatively small matter of choosing whether to send his starting offense or starting defense out for pregame introductions.
He did neither.
Only one unit is introduced before each game, and the Bucs generally rotate between offense and defense. On this afternoon, however, Dungy choose to introduce the special teams.
To follow introduction customs, Dungy had to choose 11 prominent special teamers to send out for the announcements, and so the crowd showered applause on a small group of Bucs including RB Rabih Abdullah, LB Alshermond Singleton, CB Brian Kelly and others.
As deep of an understanding as Dungy has of his team, it's doubtful he was prescient enough to know how large of an impact the special teams would have on Sunday's game, which Tampa Bay won 20-15 despite briefly losing the lead in the fourth quarter. Repeatedly, plays on special teams swung the momentum one way or another.
So, in the spirit of Dungy's task of choosing 11 special teams players to introduce, we've chosen the 11 special teams plays from Sunday's game that were most crucial to the outcome. We'll discuss them here, in ascending order of importance.
11. Martin Gramatica's touchbacks.
This is a slight bending of the rules, as we've chosen two plays to count as one. Three of Gramatica's five kickoffs sailed into the end zone, with two of them staying there for touchbacks. With a return man as dangerous as Allen Rossum (see the next entry) waiting on the other end, touchbacks certainly took the risk out of the kickoffs for the Bucs on several occasions.
The second one may have been the most crucial. Just after the Bucs had taken a two-point lead with 10 minutes to go in the game, Gramatica kicked off into the north end zone. Rossum fielded the ball about four yards deep and thought about coming out with it, but reconsidered at the last moment and kneeled. Green Bay thus opened up at their own 20, and the fumble that would occur three plays later put Tampa Bay in instant field goal range.
10. Allen Rossum's long punt return.
As you'll see, not every entry on this list was positive for Tampa Bay. One moment in which Rossum got his hands on the ball late in the third quarter could have been disastrous for the Buccaneers if not for its stalwart defense. Because the Bucs managed to turn back the Packers' threat, this particular play ranks fairly low on the list.
For a second, however, it looked like a turning point. Rossum fielded Mark Royals' 48-yard punt at his own 34, near the sideline, and was instantly confronted by a group of Buc tacklers. However, he eluded that phalanx of opponents and headed up the sideline for a 32-yard gain. One more well-timed cut could have taken him to the end zone, but Royals knocked him out of bounds at the Bucs' 34. Though Tampa Bay's defense forced a punt from their, a followup punt by the Bucs' offense from its own end zone put Green Bay near midfield, from where they drove for their only touchdown.
9. Ronde Barber's solo tackle of Rossum.
Rossum nearly had another big return in the fourth quarter, this time on a kickoff.
After the Bucs had extended their lead to 20-15 with seven minutes remaining in the game, Gramatica kicked off to the goal line, where Rossum gathered in the ball and started straight upfield. The biggest glut of Packer blockers and Buc tacklers was on the left side of the field, but Rossum suddenly veered left and seemed to have an opening to make a long return.
Only Barber stood between Rossum and a fairly large patch of open ground. Barber did his job, however, tripping up Rossum as the Packer tried to juke him inside and then go out. Rossum hit the ground at the 19, putting Green Bay 81 yards away from the end zone they needed to reach to win the game.
8. John Lynch's apparent touchdown return.
Before you dismiss this play because it was disallowed, consider the full sequence of events.
From the Bucs' 40, punter Josh Bidwell lifts a high kick that is supposed to be downed inside Tampa Bay's 10. It does, in fact, touch down inside the 10, with a Green Bay defender waiting at the goal line, but the ball takes a sidewise hop and eludes the cover man to get into the end zone. Another Packer who has streaked downfield then casually bats the ball back out of the end zone, knowing he can't avoid a touchback.
However, the ball is still live at that point, and an alert Lynch picks up the batted ball at the 14 and weaves through traffic all the way to the Packer end zone. Everything to the point where he began running was legal, but both teams had assumed the play dead and the Bucs' offense and Packers' defense had started onto the field. Thus, the play was called back for offsetting 12-men-on-the-field penalties and the Packers got to re-kick.
On their second try, Green Bay downed the punt at Tampa Bay's two.
Lynch wasn't too pleased with the final outcome. "That's just a rule that everyone should be on top of," he said. "I saw the ball and didn't give it to the official. I just picked my blocks and went 100 yards for my first NFL touchdown. But our offense came on the field and it's a good lesson to learn."
7. Mark Royals' 55-yard punt.
After Rossum's aforementioned long punt return, the Bucs' defense stopped Green Bay and gave the Bucs possession back at its own six-yard line. When the Tampa Bay offense, which struggled throughout that third period, failed to move the ball, they had the unenviable task of punting to Rossum again, this time with Royals standing near the back of his own end zone.
Fortunately, Royals got off a boomer, a high, hanging kick that forced Rossum all the way back to his own 40 to get the ball. He got back almost to midfield with it, but that is probably much better field position than the Buccaneers had a right to expect.
6. Green Bay's field goal after Tampa Bay's penalty.
Remove one crucial penalty and the Buccaneer defense might have taken a shutout into halftime. After Tampa Bay had opened the scoring with a second-quarter touchdown, they gave Green Bay excellent field position with a failed onside kick attempt (see below). However, the Bucs' defense stopped the Packers without giving up so much as a yard, and Green Bay elected to punt from the Bucs' 39.
At least, that was the first version of the tale. Bidwell hit his punt into the end zone, but Tampa Bay was flagged for having too many men on the field. Though the resulting five-yard penalty wasn't enough to give Green Bay a first down, it did move them close enough to change their minds about a field goal chance. Sure enough, K Ryan Longwell nailed it from 52 yards out.
5. Karl Williams' punt return.
Williams got only two chances to run back a punt on Sunday, and on one he was stopped for no gain. On the other, however, he provided the impetus for the Buccaneers' first score.
Each of the first three drives of the game had ended in punts, and Green Bay had taken an early edge in the field position battle. That was apparent when Williams fielded Bidwell's second punt at his own 12. Several Packers were immediately in front of Williams, but he dodged through traffic and up the left sideline for an impressive 18-yard return. The result was a first down at the 30, from where the Bucs drove 70 yards for a touchdown.
4. Tampa Bay's failed onside kick.
This, too, could have been a serious turning point in the game if not for Tampa Bay's defense. It was an unpleasant moment for the Bucs, but you can't blame them for trying.
During the week, Special Teams Coach Joe Marciano noticed that the Packers' kickoff return formation left a rather large hole right in the middle of the front line. Marciano's idea was to have Gramatica kick a short hopper, then run alongside the ball and recover it as soon as it crossed the required 10 yards. The plan seemed to be working to perfection as Gramatica waited for the ball to bounce across the Bucs 40 and into his arms. Unfortunately, it took a sideways hop at the last instant and was recovered by Green Bay.
That turned a potential big momentum-swinger for Tampa Bay into an instant Packer scoring opportunity, which turned into just a field goal, as described above.
3. Green Bay's fake field goal.
Had the Bucs been unable to rally in the fourth quarter, this play might have replaced the Jets' halfback-option touchdown pass in week four as the season's most devastating moment.
Trailing 14-9 and consistently failing to find the end zone, the Packers lined up for another moderately-long field goal try by Longwell early in the fourth quarter. Matt Hasselbeck, who had replaced an injured Brett Favre under center, was serving as the holder for Longwell, who would have had to hit a 44-yarder had Green Bay gone through with the attempt.
Instead, Hasselbeck took the snap, leapt out of his crouch and rolled right. His pass to TE Bubba Franks was on the money, and no Buccaneer defenders were within 10 yards. Franks stepped easily into the end zone to put Green Bay up 15-14 (they failed on a two-point attempt).
2. Gramatica's 51-yard field goal.
The Bucs were protecting a slim two-point lead when they came up with their only turnover, a fumble recovery at the Packers' 38. The offense failed to advance the ball more than five yards, leaving Tampa Bay at the 33 and facing a tough choice. The most likely result of a punt would be a touchback, putting Green Bay at its own 20 but needing just a field goal to go ahead.
Head Coach Tony Dungy didn't hesitate to send on Gramatica, who had made 11 field goals in a row. Gramatica's kick, it must be said with no hint of exaggeration, would have been good from 60 yards. Dead center between the two goal posts, it sailed halfway up the net and gave Tampa Bay its eventual five-point winning margin.
"I don't really look if it is 50 yards or more on a kick," claimed Gramatica. "I am just trying to make them either way. I felt pretty good warming up. I told Coach I could get it there, it just depended on which direction. I try to put less pressure on the rest of the team by making those kicks."
1. Gramatica's 54-yard field goal.
As dramatic as that final field goal was, it paled in comparison to his 54-yarder just a few minutes earlier. After the Packers' fake field goal had put them on top, Tampa Bay's offense fired right back into Green Bay territory but fizzled out at the Packers' 36.
The ball would be spotted by Royals, the holder, at the 44, meaning Green Bay would get the ball near midfield with a one-point lead if Gramatica missed.
He didn't. His 54-yarder, which put Tampa Bay ahead to stay, has been exceeded in length by only one field goal in the NFL this season, Gramatica's own 55-yard effort against Detroit on October 19.
After nailing that kick, Gramatica displayed his usual ebullience, jumping into the arms of one teammate after another. No introductions were necessary.