Had the Bucs, rather than Green Bay's Mark Tauscher, recovered this fumble, Sunday's outcome might have been different
Two footballs lying on the turf, destined to be the possession of whichever team gets to them first.
One, you may remember.
On January 15, 2000, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were playing host to the Washington Redskins in a divisional playoff game. Tampa Bay is rallying in the second half, cutting a 13-0 lead to 13-7 and driving again midway through the fourth quarter. From the Redskins' 25, on third-and-three, Bucs QB Shaun King scrambles to his left and is sacked by LB Shawn Barber, fumbling at the Redskins' 30 in the process.
For an agonizing moment, the ball lays untouched on the turf, looking for all the world like the end of a go-ahead touchdown drive and, most likely, the Bucs' Super Bowl dreams. Instead, RB Warrick Dunn shoots out of nowhere, scoops up the loose ball and runs 13 yards to the Redskins' 17 for a first down. Tampa Bay goes on to score the game-winning touchdown and advance to the NFC Championship Game in St. Louis.
The play was a little bit of luck, a little bit of athletic opportunism and a perfect example of how almost everything went right for the Buccaneers down the stretch in 1999. It was one of the most unforgettable moments in the best Tampa Bay season to date.
The other loose football with an uncertain future is not likely to live on in the memories of Buc fans, but it may still be fresh in some minds. This one fell to the turf with five minutes left to go in Tampa Bay's game at Green Bay on Sunday. S Dexter Jackson had put it there with his third-down blitzing sack of QB Brett Favre, with Tampa Bay trying to protect a tenuous, six-point lead.
As he knocks the ball from Favre's grasp at the Green Bay 28, Jackson tries to trap it on the turf with his arm as he falls in the other direction, but can't get the oblong object under control. DT James Cannida begins to dive towards the ball, perhaps about to record the team's second fumble recovery of the game and give the Bucs a chance to put the game away.
Instead, Green Bay's Mark Tauscher smothers the ball and the Packers maintain possession, allowing them to punt the ball deep into Packers territory. Two penalties, one three-and-out Buc drive and a back-breaking punt return later, the Bucs have lost, 21-20. With it went their hopes of gaining the upper hand in the NFC Central division race.
The play was a little bit of bad luck and a little bit of opportunism by Tauscher and the Packers, and it's a perfect symbol of how things have just eluded the Buccaneers this fall.
At the moment, the 1999 and 2001 seasons do not much resemble each other, as characterized by these two plays. It's true that those '99 Buccaneers also started the season 3-4, where the '01 Bucs find themselves now, but to affect a second-half turnaround similar to the one two years ago, Tampa Bay needs to get back to making the big play at the big moment.
"That's it," said Head Coach Tony Dungy. "You've got to play well enough not to give up the critical play, and then you've got to make the critical play when it needs to be.
"Like yesterday, the ball is on the ground, and if we get it, we're going to kick a field goal and go nine points ahead, at least, with about two or three minutes left. And we can't get the ball that's on the ground. Teams that are winning make that play. Somehow, we've got to get back to making them."
The Bucs left Green Bay with their 12th straight loss in Wisconsin, a streak that in recent seasons has withstood several near-victories by the visitors. They also left with their first loss of the season in which they were leading heading into the final period, but that statistic is a bit misleading. The Bucs also had a lead in the fourth quarter at Minnesota (9/30) and were able to force a tie in regulation at Tennessee, only to lose both games.
Still, even one loss in a game in which they had the lead after three quarter is rare for the Buccaneers, though perhaps fitting on a day that the New York Yankees' untouchable closer, Mariano Rivera, also blew a ninth-inning save to lose the World Series. Coming into 2001, Tampa Bay was a Rivera-esque 33-3 under Dungy in games it needed to 'close' in the fourth quarter.
They were 9-0 in that category in 1999, and 7-0 in 1997, the team's other year that included a playoff victory.
"We have to do a better job of that," said Dungy of protecting fourth-quarter leads. "That used to be our strong suit, that when we had a lead going into the fourth quarter we were able to put games away. We've got to get back to that."
Against the Packers, the game slipped away a bit at a time, with the unrecovered fumble only one in a series of Buc opportunities. It was technically Allen Rossum's 55-yard punt return with three minutes left that gave the visiting team a one-point loss, but possibilities that weren't seized earlier had kept the Bucs' lead to a minimum.
"There are plays that are there to be made," said Dungy. "We get a face-mask penalty on the quarterback when we're going to put him in a third-and-long, maybe get the ball back before half and get another chance to score. Instead, they get a long drive and have a chance to kick a field goal right before the half. We've got the ball in scoring position, at the plus-40, several times, and can't quite finish them off. We had a number of chances and didn't capitalize on enough of them."
The reason the Bucs have yet to fully right themselves from a shaky start is that there doesn't seem to be one or two specific problems that recur each week. The Bucs might have protected a fourth-quarter lead in Minnesota had they been able to stop a 96-yard touchdown drive, which they might have been able to do had a strong pass rush just finished by putting QB Daunte Culpepper on the ground. They might have finished off a remarkable rally in Tennessee had a phantom penalty on the opening kickoff return of overtime not put them in a huge hole.
And they might have held off the Packers on Sunday had that ball found its way into Jackson's or Sapp's hands.
"It's a little bit of everything," said Dungy. "We've got to look at everything and not just say, 'Oh, well, if we fix this one thing…' One week, it's third-down defense, the next week it's running defense, the next week it's third-down conversions, the next week it's punt coverage. We've got to be consistent everywhere if we want to win."