WR Keenan McCardell shares an amusing moment with NFC coach Andy Reid during a pre-Pro Bowl practice
On a per-capita basis, at least, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' impact on the 2004 Pro Bowl was fairly strong.
The Bucs, who at one point had four players ticketed for this year's NFL all-star game, eventually were represented by just one man, wide receiver Keenan McCardell. And McCardell caught just one pass in the game, but it was a touchdown. His score, the second of four rapid-fire touchdown passes thrown by St. Louis Rams quarterback Marc Bulger, helped the NFC rally from a 38-13 deficit to win 55-52 on Sunday.
McCardell was the last of the four Bucs selected to the Pro Bowl this season, but the only one on hand for the game. Defensive tackle Warren Sapp, chosen for the seventh consecutive year, had to skip the game in order to take care of the foot and ankle injuries that plagued him near the end of the regular season. Linebacker Derrick Brooks, also scheduled to play in his seventh straight Pro Bowl, bowed out early in the week due to a family illness. Defensive end Simeon Rice, chosen as an all-star for the third time, was replaced on the NFC roster late in the week by Green Bay defensive end Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila, who had two sacks and a forced fumble in the game.
McCardell was making his second all-star trip to Hawaii, having previously represented the Jacksonville Jaguars on the AFC squad after the 1996 season. One of four receivers at the disposal of NFC quarterbacks Daunte Culpepper, Matt Hasselbeck and Bulger, McCardell played extensively but was an infrequent target. Bulger, by far the most productive of the NFC's passers – and the game's MVP, as chosen by fans online – most frequently went to his Rams teammate, Torry Holt, who caught a game-high seven passes for 128 yards.
McCardell's one catch was near the beginning of the NFC's rally, however. Following a Derrick Mason fumble that gave the NFC a first down at the AFC's seven, McCardell cut underneath the formation from left to right on third-and-five and caught a short pass from Bulger as he stepped into the end zone. It was the first Pro Bowl touchdown for the 13-year veteran.
That third-quarter score sliced the AFC's lead to 38-27, and the NFC continued its comeback in the final period, thanks to a string of AFC turnovers. The NFC took the lead for the first time, 48-45 at the five-minute mark on Detroit cornerback Dre` Bly's 32-yard interception return touchdown, added a touchdown moments later after another interception and held on for the three-point victory. Indianapolis kicker Mike Vanderjagt, who did miss a single field goal try during the regular season and postseason in 2003, pushed a 51-yard try just a few feet wide to the right as time expired.
The NFC's victory broke a three-game winning streak by its rival conference. It also continued a recent trend of very high-scoring games; the winning team has scored at least 38 points in each of the last five games. Even so, this one set a new standard – the 107 combined points were easily the most ever in a Pro Bowl.
McCardell's touchdown marked the fourth time in the last five years that a Buccaneer has scored in the Pro Bowl. Fullback Mike Alstott found the end zone a combined four times in the 2000 and 2003 games, and kicker Martin Gramatica had two extra points and a 48-yard field goal in the 2001 contest.
The score punctuated a fantastic season for McCardell, Tampa Bay's leading receiver. The Bucs' most consistent offensive threat in 2003, McCardell set a career high with a 14.0 yards-per-catch average, producing 1,174 yards and eight touchdowns on 84 receptions.