WR Joe Jurevicius gives the Bucs a formidable threesome of receivers, a strength both teams boast in this Sunday's matchup
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are headed into the desert as they finish their 2004 season. The key is to make sure that statement remains true on a literal level only.
A victory over the Arizona Cardinals in Week 17 would help the Buccaneers lessen the parched feeling of a second straight season without the playoffs, would hopefully point the team back toward the fertile ground they harvested for five playoff berths – and a Super Bowl victory – from 1997-2002. The Bucs come into the season finale with three straight losses; they don't want to end the season feeling lost.
How the Bucs come out in 2005 could be affected by how they finish 2004, so the team is considering this game anything but meaningless, despite Arizona and Tampa Bay's matching 5-10 records.
"We are going to look at this game as a stepping-stone," said Head Coach Jon Gruden. "We are not going to look at this game as a stone that we throw into the Gulf of Mexico. We are going to try to win the game. To me, that is the most positive way to end the season, with a win."
The last time the Bucs ended a season with a win, it was a big win. The 2002 campaign concluded with their 48-21 thrashing of Oakland in Super Bowl XXXVII. Since then, the team has struggled through two seasons of injury woes and increasingly unusual last-minute losses. For the second straight year, the Bucs held onto the outer edges of the playoff race into the season's penultimate game, only to have their last contest rendered moot in terms of the postseason.
Whereas last year the Bucs headed into the offseason with a somewhat lackluster, 33-13 loss at Tennessee, they hope to finish 2004 on a much higher note. As such, the focus will remain on the outcome, rather than on an opportunity to test out some less experienced players.
"We are going to do everything we can to win the football game first," said Gruden. "I realize our status, being out of the playoffs, and what a great opportunity it would be to send all of your players who haven't played out there in a game. But we are going to try our best to win the football game and to do that we are going to play the guys that we think are ready to go and give us the best chance."
Fortunately the Bucs, while frequent victims of their own mistakes this year, still have quite a few players performing at peak levels. Linebacker Derrick Brooks and Ronde Barber are very deserving Pro Bowl choices and a number of other Buccaneer defenders might be considered all-star snubs, including defensive end Greg Spires, cornerback Brian Kelly and linebackers Shelton Quarles and Ian Gold. Strong safety Dwight Smith is coming off perhaps his best game of the season, in which he racked up 14 tackles, two forced fumbles (one erased by penalty) and a pass-defensed in the end zone while basically racing all over the field.
In other words, the Bucs are fifth in the NFL in defense for good reason. This Sunday, they'll face the league's 25th-ranked offense, though the Cardinals' 23rd-ranked passing attack has been hot of late. Quarterback Josh McCown, who started the Cards' first nine games before being replaced by Shaun King and then John Navarre, has been back at the helm for the last three weeks and has displayed a hot hand. He has completed 62.1% of his passes (69-111) and tossed five touchdown passes over that span, including three last week on the road against division-leading Seattle.
McCown is working with a Cardinal receiving corps that could be on the league's best for years to come. When Arizona runs three-wide, as they frequently do, they do so with Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin and Bryant Johnson, all receivers taken in the first or second round over the last two years. Fitzgerald would be the NFL's leading rookie receiver if not for the Bucs' Michael Clayton, and Boldin set a league rookie record last year with 103 grabs. All three of those young pass-catchers have between 47 and 55 catches and 528 and 744 yards, and Fitzgerald leads all rookies with eight touchdown grabs.
The Cardinals have surrendered 39 sacks this year, however, and they'll almost certainly be playing without left tackle Leonard Davis (knee) in the finale. That could be quite a challenge for Arizona's front line, as the Buccaneers' defense is ranked first in the entire league in sacks per pass play.
Tampa Bay's offense is ranked just three spots ahead of Arizona's, at number 22, but it too has a trio of dangerous receivers in Clayton, Joey Galloway and Joe Jurevicius. Those three combined for 19 catches, 230 yards and three touchdowns last week, and Galloway has scored six times in the last four games (one on a punt return). They have given Brian Griese (97.5 passer rating, 20 touchdowns in 11 games) an increasingly potent range of targets in the season's second half.
Griese may not start, however. A sore hip could put him on the sideline for the first time since early in the Week Five game at New Orleans, thus opening the door for a return by Chris Simms. Simms started that contest at New Orleans and looked sharp, but suffered a shoulder injury at the end of the first quarter and needed roughly a month to recover. In the meantime, Griese put a vise grip on the job, but Simms will certainly battle for the starting position in 2005 and he could get one more cameo before 2004 comes to an end.
Whoever distributes the ball will have to watch out for a pass rush that has produced 34 sacks, 12.5 of them by NFC sack-leader Bertrand Berry. Other defenders who have good seasons for the 13th-ranked Cardinal defense include recently-resigned safety Adrian Wilson (93 tackles, one sack, two interceptions, 10 passes defensed, three fumble recoveries, one touchdown), linebacker James Darling (team-high 100 tackles, one sack, one interception, two forced fumbles) and rookie linebacker Karlos Dansby (61 tackles, five sacks, one interception, three fumble recoveries. New defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast has proved to be a creative schemer, and the Cardinals complicate matters by using both the 4-3 and the 3-4 defensive front.
The Cardinals defense presents a significant challenge for a Buccaneer offense that has generally moved the ball well during the season's second half but has hurt itself frequently with turnovers. With 11 giveaways in the last three games – many of them leading to points – that's one problem the Bucs would like to begin addressing sooner rather than later.
With concerns such as these to address before the offseason begins, it's clear why the Bucs are not looking at the season finale as a glorified preseason game to be used for new player evaluation.
"We have played a number of players and there will be some guys that might be thrust in a duty this week due to injury," said Gruden. "But we have a long way to go to see exactly where we are heading into next season."