In the closing moments of close games, S John Lynch has repeatedly put his teammates on his back this season
Tampa Bay Buccaneers safety John Lynch sacrificed a promising professional baseball career eight years ago for the love of football. Though he threw the first pitch in Florida Marlins' history as a minor leaguer, his 95-mph heat and bulldog personality had the organization grooming him for a late-relief role.
That's fitting, because he has certainly become the 'closer' for the Buccaneers.
"That's what I used to do in baseball," said Lynch with a laugh. "If that's my role on this team, I'll take it."
Eight of the Bucs' 11 games this season have been decided by four points or loss, and only one has had a winning margin of more than a touchdown. Obviously, there have been ample opportunities for clutch players on both sides to deliver game-changing plays. The Bucs have won five games of those 10 close ones; if not for Lynch's late-game heroics, the team's season might already by lost.
On Sunday in Cincinnati, with a 13-13 game ticking past five minutes elapsed in overtime, Lynch dove at RB Corey Dillon from behind, poked the football loose and recovered it at the Bengals' four-yard line. Martin Gramatica kicked the game-winning field goal a moment later.
"That's important," said Head Coach Tony Dungy of the well-timed takeaway. "Someone has to step up and make plays, and we've had different guys do it. That was huge, getting that ball back there and not having to re-fight the field position game again. We needed that."
Indeed, Warrick Dunn had the big reception at the end of regulation in Detroit to set up a similar game-winning field goal, and Brad Johnson rallied the Bucs to two late touchdowns to send an eventual loss in Tennessee into overtime. There have been plenty of heroes made this season.
But it has been Lynch more than any other big-name Buc that has come up with the critical play in the waning moments this season. In fact, if the season ended today, the season would be neatly framed between two games ended, in effect by Lynch. In the season opener, the hard-hitting safety showed his ever-increasing knack for the turnover by intercepting QB Quincy Carter with 1:15 left, preserving a 10-6 victory.
In between, Lynch turned away a hair-rising last-minute drive led by Green Bay's Brett Favre in Tampa on October 7, coming across the back of the end zone to bat away a fourth-down pass that had nearly reached intended target Corey Bradford. Tampa Bay won, 14-10. Just last week in St. Louis, he intercepted QB Kurt Warner with 2:26 remaining in the game, locking down a 24-17 upset of the 8-1 Rams.
When things have gotten scary, Lynch has been there.
"Always," said DT Warren Sapp, the appreciation obvious in his voice. "Always when we need him. That's the key to our defense, being where you're supposed to be when you're supposed to be there.
Sapp was so enthused by Lynch's latest bit of game-saving prowess that his post-game analysis of the play flew off in a bizarre direction.
"It's just like when you're a kid and you go to Chuck-E-Cheese and put your quarter in and the little things pop up," said Sapp, conjuring an unavoidable image of the 'Whack-a-Mole game. "When they pop up, hit it. Lynch hit it. Whatever raises its ugly head, you hit it. You whack it."
Lynch almost whacked Dillon hard enough at the end of regulation to make overtime unnecessary. The hard-nosed Cincinnati back caught a pass at the Bucs' one-yard line with about 10 seconds remaining in the game, the Bengals out of timeouts and the visitors up by seven. S Dexter Jackson wrapped him up immediately and tried to keep him from crossing the plane of the goal line, with Lynch rushing up out of the end zone to add a secondary hit. The two safeties dragged the twisting Dillon to the ground, but the officials signaled a touchdown and a subsequent replay review was inconclusive.
"I was trying to throw a fit so we'd at least get a replay out of it, because I know it's not on Tony at that point," said Lynch. "I know it's up top. I thought I'd try to make it look close. They got a replay, and the official told me that they never gave them an angle that they could tell. It certainly was close."
Had Dillon been stopped short with the clock running at eight seconds and counting, the Bengals would have been extremely fortunate to get another play off. Instead, the game went into overtime and the Bucs got the ball first, driving far enough into Bengal territory to pin Cincinnati deep with a coffin-corner punt.
One play later, Lynch got the ball back for the Bucs.
Dillon tried to give the Bengals some breathing room with a run up the middle, but Lynch came up quickly in run support. As the play developed, it wasn't the de-cleating type of hit for which Lynch is know, but a hair-trigger reaction that saved the Bucs.
"He cut on me, and I thought I was going to lose him, but I knocked the ball out," said the three-time Pro Bowler. "The ball was just laying there, and I thought about getting up and going, but I said, 'No, let's just be safe and let Martin end this thing.'"
Which Gramatica did, bringing to a close another heart-straining Buc victory that, like the games in Dallas and Detroit, seemingly could have been had much more easily.
"I was just telling Jeff Gooch, 'Man this team takes years of your life,'" said Lynch, laughing again in the merriment of the postgame locker room. "We certainly like to make them interesting.
"You're never disappointed with a win, but I thought we had an opportunity to close these guys out and we would have liked to have done that. But, in the end, they're a tough football team, and we had a lot of respect for Corey Dillon. We had to be on our run fits. We knew their defense was a formidable unit and they'd be tough to move the ball against. We actually moved the ball, but we didn't finish the way we'd like to."
True, it was not a complete game. But then again, isn't that why you have a closer?