WR Frank Murphy nearly broke a long kickoff return against the Steelers on Sunday afternoon
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers spent the final four minutes of Sunday's 17-10 loss to Pittsburgh taking two steps forward and one step back.
The game's final minutes were consumed by an 80-yard Buccaneer touchdown drive that, if not a thing of beauty, was at least a sight to behold. Imagine a march that succeeds despite the quarterback being sacked four times, including the first two plays of the drive. Imagine three third downs of 14 or more yards, none of them successfully converted, and yet the drive continues.
And, most of all, imagine that not one but both of the team's starting receivers out of the game before the drive was completed.
All of that happened on the Buccaneer drive that closed the gap to seven points, as close as the home team would get, thanks to an overturned possession ruling on the ensuing onsides kick. It reached the end zone largely due to QB Brad Johnson's precision passing, but also because other players were ready to step up when both Jacquez Green and Keyshawn Johnson left to injuries.
One of those players was WR Frank Murphy, a first-year man who was inactive for three of the Bucs' first four games. That Murphy was even available for action on Sunday was the result of a string of personnel decisions. That he was standing in the end zone with the ball in his hands on the final play of the drive was the result of his own ability to seize an opportunity.
"I have been hoping for more playing time," said Murphy. "I was at least able to come out and help the team."
Murphy originally joined the team as a free agent off the Chicago Bears practice squad last season. He was a multi-purpose player at Kansas State that the Bears tried to mold into a running back. Tampa Bay saw his speed and sure hands and envisioned him running routes. After being promoted to the active roster late in 2000, Murphy showed enough development over the offseason to retain a spot on the 53-man squad. He has top-notch skills and serious jets, but is still learning his new position. Murphy's raw, you could say.
As the fifth receiver on the Bucs' depth chart, however, Murphy lives week to week on that thin edge between making the 45-man active squad and wearing a polo shirt on Sunday. He is a valued and talented member of the squad, but he plays positions – receiver, kickoff returner, special teams cover man – where there is often a surplus of options.
On Sunday, Murphy was probably in uniform because RB Warrick Dunn was healthy, RB Aaron Stecker was a bit nicked up and S Dexter Jackson and LB Jeff Gooch were injured. Stecker, Jackson and Gooch generally play quite a bit on special teams. Perhaps Stecker would have been active if there had been a more serious concern about Dunn's sprained foot, but instead Murphy was put on the 45-man unit.
By the end of the game, he had made an impact in a variety of ways.
Midway through the third quarter, with the Bucs trailing 14-3 and desperately in need of a boost in their field-position fortunes, Tampa Bay faced a fourth down at their own 35. Murphy came on to help the punt coverage unit and streaked downfield on the left side, emerging as the first man to meet returner Hank Poteat. Despite an attempted cut by Poteat, Murphy made an impressive diving tackle to stop the Steeler in his tracks at the Pittsburgh 15.
Five minutes later, however, Pittsburgh had scored and were thus kicking off with a 14-point lead. Murphy again influenced the field position battle by taking the kick at the Bucs' one-yard line, cutting nearly all the way across the field and finding a seam to the 35-yard line. If not for a foot tackle from behind, Murphy might have endangered the Bucs' 26-year streak of never returning a kickoff for a touchdown.
Then there was the final drive.
Murphy came in to play in the three-receiver set after Keyshawn Johnson caught a 17-yard pass down to the Steelers' 38. Johnson suffered a right hip flexor strain on the play and was unable to return the game. The Bucs' other starting wideout, Jacquez Green, had gone out on the previous drive with a groin strain.
So Murphy joined Reidel Anthony and Karl Williams on the field and tried to present an inviting target.
It was Williams that Johnson looked to initially, hitting the sixth-year vet on three passes for a total of 42 yards, which positioned the Bucs at the Steeler 17. From there, it was Murphy time.
Two six-yard completions to Murphy put the Bucs in a first-and-goal at the Steelers' five. Johnson took the next snap and looked left but had to scramble right under pressure. Murphy had run an out to the side of the end zone to begin with, but he cut back towards the inside when he saw Johnson scrambling. The quarterback took advantage of the small window Murphy created by firing in a five-yard scoring pass.
Afterwards, Murphy shrugged off his first career NFL touchdown.
"It always feels good to almost come back at the end and keep plugging, but we got the loss so it doesn't really matter," he said. "We have to keep going until it clicks for us. We are going to fight through it."
Spoken like a team player – one ready to step up when the Bucs need him.