QB Chris Simms drove the Bucs into Atlanta territory three times in the overtime period
There are audibles, and then there are audibles.
The audible is a quarterback's way of saying, "I got the play, coach, but I think I have a better idea." If you're Peyton Manning, that's modus operandi. If you're one of the other 31 starters in the league, that's a matter of opinion.
Context is key.
Audibles are a necessity in the National Football League, where defenses try their best to disguise coverages and flummox quarterbacks with unusual avenues of pressure. Even the most control-freak coach in the league doesn't want to run off left tackle against a defense that has that side of the line stacked with defenders. But it's one thing to audible out of a third-and-two run in the second quarter of a 10-10 ballgame; it's another matter altogether to overturn the coach's wishes on a third-and-five in overtime.
Chris Simms was willing to take that risk on Saturday.
Simms' Tampa Bay Buccaneers were locked in a 24-24 tie with Atlanta five minutes into overtime at Raymond James Stadium. Simms had just run a designed rollout to the left and, with no one open, had scrambled for two yards on second-and-seven. The Bucs needed five yards from the Atlanta 39 or they would face a very difficult decision. It was the very definition of no-man's-land.
Simms got the play-call, which may forever be lost to posterity, from the sideline. Then he looked to his right and saw wide receiver Joey Galloway, the league's resident speed merchant, in one-on-one coverage with no safety help. Simms changed the play.
"There are not a lot of guys in this league that would make that kind of audible in that situation," said Galloway, who has been making big plays for the Buccaneers all season. "He has grown up tremendously over the course of this season, and as long as he keeps doing that then it is going to be interesting and fun to see just how good he can be."
Galloway sped down the right sideline with safety Antuan Edwards in man-to-man coverage. Simms took a three-step drop, neutralizing Atlanta's blitz, and lofted a high floater towards the 10-yard line. It was a perfect throw in that situation, but it wasn't an easy catch for Galloway, who had to look it in over his left shoulder and then dance his tiptoes in on the sideline.
First down at the Falcons' nine-yard line, five minutes into overtime. Simms, who had shown such unexpectedly good poise in comeback wins against Washington and, five weeks ago, Atlanta, had done it again. These Buccaneers, who had lost one close game after another in 2003 and 2004, were suddenly the ones who could make the big play at the end. And Simms, who still has just 10 NFL starts under his belt, was gaining a reputation as a cool customer when the game was on the line.
"It's a good reputation, but we'll see," said Simms, who seems strangely unruffled by anything going on around him. "It goes week to week in this league. Next week, we'll see what happens. It's fun to be noticed in that way. It's a quarterback's dream to be in situations like that week-in and week-out but, trust me, I'd take a nice 21-0 victory any day of the week."
Let the record show that Simms' completion to Galloway did not lead to the game winning points; K Matt Bryant subsequently missed a 27-yard attempt. All that did was give the third-year passer another chance to shine. When Atlanta punted away with one minute to go and Mark Jones returned the kick 28 yards to the Falcons' 49, Simms had another shot to put the Bucs in scoring position.
He immediately completed passes of 15 and 11 yards to tight ends Alex Smith and Anthony Becht, spiking the ball to kill the clock after both completions. Those two deliberate spikes were Simms' only incompletions in a masterful, six-of-eight, 71-yard performance in overtime. He was a picture of calm efficiency when the game was on the line with every snap.
Simms stayed in control by keeping his focus narrow.
"You just trying not to get too ahead of yourself," he said. "I think that's the biggest thing as a quarterback. I know that's so cliché to say but, 'One play at a time.' It's really the truth because each play is its own adventure. You can't get too ahead of yourself because that's when mistakes come. You have to try to stay focused play after play after play and move the ball little by little."
When he led the Bucs to a comeback win over Washington, Simms completed a 30-yard game-winning touchdown pass to Edell Shepherd, another 47-yard pass to Shepherd to set up a TD and a 24-yard scoring strike to Galloway. On Saturday against the Falcons, his overtime strike to Galloway was his only pass of over 21 years. "Move the ball little by little"...that's what he did over three overtime drives that gained 134 yards but had just one play over 11 yards.
That wasn't the extent of Simms' cool heroics. The Buccaneers trailed 24-17 with four minutes to go in regulation, setting Simms up in a situation he had previously faced against the Redskins and Falcons in November. Just as he did in those two games, Simms drove the Bucs the length of the field for the game-tying score (which became the game-winning points against Washington when the Bucs went for two).
"I think we are continually finding ways to win games like this," said Simms. "We got our butts handed to us last week but, again, we just continue to fight. For whatever reason this year, we've had the confidence that if we need a touchdown on the last drive of the game, or three points, whatever it is, we've been able to put it together and go do it."
Of course, as you can see from the pronouns above, wasn't considering the Bucs' Saturday comeback to be his own. Running back Cadillac Williams ran for 45 of his 150 yards in overtime, the offensive line limited Atlanta's strong outside rush to just two sacks and the Bucs' defense came up with the most critical three-and-out of the game inside the two-minute warning in overtime.
Simms may have been the spearhead of several Buccaneer comebacks, but he knows the experience has hardened all of them for the pressures of a likely playoff berth.
"If there's one thing that we know that we are, it's battle-tested," said Simms. "We're not intimidated by situations, as far as being down by a touchdown or 10 points. We believe that we can get it done no matter what the circumstance."
Last year, the Bucs went 5-11 but team management was convinced that the team wasn't nearly as incompetent as that record would suggest. It was a matter of a few plays here and a few plays there, most of which the Bucs failed to turn in their favor. This year, the Bucs could easily have suffered several more defeats, but they've simply refused to lose when the game was on the line. Simms has been a big part of that.
"I haven't seen this kind of resolve in my lifetime as a coach," said Head Coach Jon Gruden. "That was resolve today. We showed great resolve in the Washington game and the earlier Falcon game. I'm as proud of that as anything we've instilled as a staff, and a lot of that comes from the players. We've added some guys who are relentless in their efforts to be great."