Eagles QB Donovan McNabb practically willed himself out of sack trouble for much of Sunday, but DE Simeon Rice still provided some pressure
If the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 2006 season to this point was a single football game, it would be the Week Three matchup with Carolina.
Remember that game? Seriously depressing first quarter, nice little rebound in the second quarter? That's the Bucs' 2006 fortunes in a nutshell...so far.
Head Coach Jon Gruden famously likes to view the NFL's 16-game regular season as a game-like series of four quarters. In 2002, for instance, the Super Bowl-bound Buccaneers accomplished quite a feat by going 3-1 in each of the season's four "quarters," and that was good enough to win the NFC South and a first-round bye.
This year, the Bucs stumbled in the first quarter – and, it's true, in the first quarters of each of their first three games – but appear to have righted themselves in the second quarter. Now they hope to finish the half strong, post a third quarter like the Carolina game (14-point rally) and a fourth quarter like the Cincinnati contest (come-from-behind victory). Who knows? If the Bucs can manage to rally all the way to the playoffs, maybe they'll finish the whole thing the way Matt Bryant did on Sunday – a shot out of the blue.
To be clear, the Bucs aren't trying to claim they're in a favorable position simply because they've won two games in a row. At 2-4, they are still fourth in what appears to be the NFL's toughest division, top to bottom. They've already lost three intra-division games, which could be a problem if they are forced to prevail in a tiebreaker.
But they have succeeded in meeting at least their most immediate goal: To put that terrible first quarter behind them and get back into the game. That's what they did against Carolina, however fruitless it was at the very end, and that's what they've done with the 2006 season.
"We try not to talk about being 0-4 anymore," said Gruden. "We are no longer 0-4. We made a goal, I think between ourselves, to just all agree we had a horrific start to this season. We went 0-4 in the first quarter and let's not talk about it anymore. Let's see what we can get done in the second quarter of the season. So far we are 2-0 and I think it is uplifting to everybody to beat two teams as highly-touted as Cincinnati and Philadelphia were when we played them. It is a really good accomplishment."
Indeed, the Eagles are in first place in the vaunted NFC East and the Bengals tied Baltimore atop the AFC North with their win over Carolina on Sunday. The Bucs may not want to talk about the first quarter of the season anymore, but it may be that two strong performances against Carolina and New Orleans, another first-place team, built momentum heading into the second quarter. A 4-2 record would be nicer than momentum, but the Bucs have to move forward from where they are.
"We have played four straight games that have really been decided by the last play of the game, if you want to be honest," said Gruden. "We feel like we are a pretty good team. We feel like there are some areas that we have to do much better at to compete. We are hanging around. We are still around and we aren't going anyplace. We have a chance to win our third straight game this week and that is something that we are excited about."
Something to get excited about, even after an 0-4 start? Why, yes, and perhaps on an even larger scale than Gruden means – or would be willing to consider this early in the season. A three-game winning streak would make the Bucs 3-4…and that's the exact record from which the team launched successful playoff pushes in both 2000 and 2001.
Those teams had some better surrounding numbers, however, most obviously a highly-ranked defense. The 2006 Bucs are currently 29th in offense and 27th in defense after gaining 196 yards and allowing 506 in the win over Philadelphia. Gruden rather vehemently dismisses statistics, but he doesn't disagree with the notion that the Bucs need to improve in order to duplicate those '00 and '01 resurgences.
"Well, obviously, we need to get more done in all phases," he said. "We have to get more done. We have to tackle better. Obviously, we haven't tackled to the standards that we are capable of tackling. I think that is true for everybody's team right now. Everybody in football is going to say that to you today, but we are capable of tackling better. We need to get more out of our passing game, I do believe, than we have the last couple of games. I am not to continue. I am just going to say that we have a long way to go in all areas. We have to get better."
As great as Sunday afternoon was for the Buccaneers, there was another nice development on Monday morning. You see, there was no, 'Yeah, but…' start to Gruden's press conference.
You know: "Yeah, that was a nice game, but wait until you hear who got hurt."
Gruden's injury wrap-up to start Monday's press conference was brief and positive. "We do not have any serious injuries to report," he said.
Gruden did, however, mention two players who performed against Philadelphia on Sunday despite their own minor injuries. Defensive end Simeon Rice did not have a sack on Sunday but he did pressure the incredibly elusive Donovan McNabb on several occasions. Since Rice is usually a guaranteed double-digit sack man by the end of the season, some analysts have criticized his one-sack total through the first six games.
Gruden doesn't share that point of view, and he pointed out on Monday that Rice is maintaining a high level of play despite a troublesome shoulder.
"You know when you are not healthy you have a tendency to not be at your best," said Gruden. "But see, a lot of guys choose not to play when they are hurt, or can't play when they are hurt. This guy plays all the time, every Sunday. This guy is a great player. People aren't happy with him, some of the people, his critics, with the lack of sacks he has, but he is playing his butt off. And he'll make his share of plays before it is all said and done. I am a big fan of his. I respect what he's going through physically, I respect the fact that he's given us everything he has. Good times are ahead for him."
For the first time since he was drafted in 2005, guard Dan Buenning played in a game in which he didn't start. He had been part of the starting offensive line for 20 of the team's 21 previous games, only missing this year's season opener due to an ankle injury. On Sunday, Sean Mahan started at Buenning's usual left guard spot, but Buenning remained on the 45-man active list. In a reverse of what transpired the week before, Buenning replaced Mahan for a portion of the game.
Gruden said that Buenning, like Rice, is fighting through an injury that could be limiting his effectiveness.
"He's battling some injuries, I do believe, with his hip and ankle," said Gruden. "I don't think he's 100 percent right now. And we think Mahan's pretty good, too. So we have a little depth there. We have a little competition going and we're doing the best we can to be fair and give our team the best chance to win."