QB Brian Griese got his first crack at the Bucs' QB job in New Orleans, and he has put a firm grip on it since
If the Buccaneers are unable to buck the odds at 5-8 and grab the last NFC playoff berth, there will be several obvious turning points to remember, headlined by Adam Archuleta's fumble return in a narrow loss at St. Louis.
However, if the Bucs do streak to 8-8, get the right help and take that Wild Card spot – and the scenario is actually not that far-fetched – there will be an obvious turning point in a positive way, too.
On October 10, Tampa Bay, which quietly had high hopes for the season, arrived at the Superdome with an 0-4 record and a quarterback about to make his first NFL start. Brad Johnson had been replaced by second-year man Chris Simms, who promptly went out and looked sharp in the first quarter, completing five of eight and leading the Bucs to a first-possession field goal.
However, on the Bucs' last play of the first quarter, Simms was sacked awkwardly by rookie defensive end Will Smith, leading to a shoulder injury that would sideline the young passer for a month.
In stepped Brian Griese, who immediately looked just as good as Simms, if not better. Griese completed 16 of 19 passes in that game for 194 yards, a touchdown and no interceptions, led the Bucs to their first win of the season and, remarkably, has not slowed down yet.
Nine games and eight starts into his Buccaneer career, Griese is a near lock to not only break the team record for single-season passer rating, but blow it away. Johnson set the mark at 92.9 in 2002 (that in itself was a huge improvement over the previous record of 85.3); Griese currently stands at 99.4.
The prolific passing of the former Bronco and Dolphin over the past two months – he had 392 passing yards on Sunday against the league's 11th-ranked defense – is a major reason that the Bucs are still at least alive in the playoff hunt in mid-December.
"The guy is at times phenomenal," said Head Coach Jon Gruden after the San Diego game, in which Griese completed 36 of 50 passes. "He is tough. He gets up off the ground. He is throwing the ball extremely accurately. He is managing a lot of football and moving the ball up and down the field at times on the road against a team that, if you watch them on tape, the last four or five weeks has been very, very good. I am encouraged by him, tremendously encouraged by what he has done and what he brings to this football team."
Griese could build on his numbers this weekend against the league's 31st-ranked pass defense. On the other hand, the Saints are coming off perhaps their best effort in the secondary of the season. In a 27-13 victory at Dallas, New Orleans held Vinny Testaverde to 14 of 35 passing for 160 yards and no touchdowns, and was able to pick off two passes, after having eight interceptions through the first 12 games (one of the interceptions was off a throw by WR Keyshawn Johnson.) Cornerback Mike McKenzie acquired in an October trade with Green Bay, is getting more comfortable in the defensive system and ends Smith, Darren Howard and Charles Grant are hurrying passers into bad throws with their constant pressure (22 sacks between the three).
Griese has been sacked 23 times in his nine games, but he has also escaped some potentially bad situations with his underrated mobility, much as he did in completing a third-down, 24-yard pass to WR Joe Jurevicius to sustain a touchdown drive in San Diego. Despite his season-high three interceptions at San Diego (one on a first-half 'Hail Mary' pass), Griese has consistently made good decisions with the ball.
And the Bucs need that type of on-field leadership at the moment, with the playoffs still within reach. Actually, Gruden indicated that he would be sticking with Griese for the last three games of the season under any circumstances, despite the belief that Simms also has a bright future. Gruden simply can't ignore what Griese has done with his unexpected opportunity.
"Brian Griese is throwing for 70 percent [completion rate]," said the coach. "That is a feat that has only been accomplished a handful of times in the history of this game. He is doing a phenomenal job. Chris Simms will get an opportunity at some point again and when opportunity knocks, he has got to be ready. It is a credit to Chris for continuing to work and next week, we'll see what happens. If Brian keeps going like he is going I don't foresee him coming out of the lineup anytime soon."
The Saints' quarterback, in contrast, has played every offensive snap of the season. And though it has been a bit of an up-and-down campaign for both Aaron Brooks and the Saints, Brooks still has 3,198 passing yards and 17 touchdowns to his credit, as well as three additional rushing scores. He has rarely piled up prolific numbers against the Bucs' defense, but he has quite often made just enough big plays to lead the Saints to victory. New Orleans has won two in a row in Tampa; in last year's victory at Raymond James Stadium, Brooks was successful just 13 of 29 passes, but he completed five straight passes with no timeouts in the closing seconds to lead the Saints to a game-winning field goal.
When they meet again, Brooks will be facing the league's top-rated pass defense. The Buccaneers have allowed only 163.5 passing yards per game this season and have 31 sacks and 12 interceptions over the last eight games. The cornerback tandem of Brian Kelly and Ronde Barber has combined for three interceptions in the past two games and defensive end Simeon Rice has averaged a sack a game for the past eight weeks.
Brooks would be helped immeasurably if he gets another strong performance out of RB Deuce McAllister, who may be surging late in the season after being hampered by injuries much of the year. McAllister ran for 83 yards and two touchdowns against Dallas; though it took him 30 carries to do so, for a 2.8-yard average, the heavy workload is an indication that he is back to full health. Unlike Brooks, McAllister has almost always excelled against Tampa Bay; in the October meeting, he had 102 yards on 21 carries, though he didn't score.
Thus, if the Saints are able to crack the Bucs' fifth-ranked defense to any extent, than Sunday's game could be another high-octane affair, such as last week's 31-24 loss, in which the Bucs had 436 of the game's 772 combined yards. Behind Griese, Tampa Bay has certainly proved it could points on the board at home. Over the past three home games, the Bucs have averaged 32 points a game.
And the Bucs obviously want to build on that success, whether it is to sneak into the playoffs or build momentum for 2005. Carolina and Atlanta play on Saturday night, and a Panther win would put a serious crimp in the Bucs' playoff hopes. That outcome won't change the Bucs' effort on Sunday, however.
"We're going to continue to try to win the football game, because that's the right thing to do," said Gruden. "We've got a lot of pride in our locker room."