DE Simeon Rice forced two more fumbles on Sunday, the 35th and 36th of his career
Central to the chaos theory studied by mathematicians and physicists is "the butterfly effect," which posits that the flapping of a single butterfly's wing could set in motion a monumental change in the state of the atmosphere.
Sunday against the Carolina Panthers, defensive end Simeon Rice was that butterfly.
While it's debatable that the 6-5, 268-pound Rice could pass for a butterfly, his actions Sunday afternoon had an undeniable effect on the environment in Raymond James Stadium. Though the Buccaneers would eventually wind up with their third loss of the season, Rice's big plays spurred a heroic comeback that at least reminded the Buccaneers that they could compete with any team in the league.
"It was an emotional, hard-fought game, period," said a spent Rice after the game. "That sums it up right there."
Up 20-7 to start the third quarter, the Panthers offense took the field with the intent of driving the last nail in the Buccaneers' coffin. Rice had other ideas.
On third-and-six of that opening possession of the second half, Rice burst off the line of scrimmage, sensed he was within grasping range of Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme and leaped over left tackle Jordan Gross. His momentum carried him through Gross and into Delhomme where their bodies collided, causing Delhomme to fumble. Defensive end Dewayne White alertly pounced on the football at the Carolina 15-yard line. Two Cadillac Williams runs later, the Buccaneers were in the end zone for the second time in the game, cutting their deficit to a mere six points.
Rice wasn't done.
Looking to answer back, the Panthers mounted a drive of their own on the ensuing possession. But on first down from the Carolina 48-yard line and after an 11-yard run up the gut by DeShaun Foster, Rice again made his presence felt. This time he knifed through the line, sticking Foster and forcing another second fumble, this time recovered by defensive tackle Chris Hovan at midfield. Energized by the turnover, the Buccaneers mounted a 10-play, 58-yard drive for a touchdown and their first lead of the season on Simms' two-yard dive into end zone.
Another flap of the wings. The Simeon effect was in full force.
"For those that have seen me play, that's me," Rice said. "I've been dominating the game for a long time, but the objective is for us to win. That was the most important thing for the day. That's the thing that we didn't get accomplished. That's really what I wanted to get accomplished more than anything."
Still, Rice gave his team a chance to win, in part because his own big plays had an energizing effect on his teammates. In short, big plays are contagious, and after Rice got the ball rolling his defensive teammates seemed to ratchet up their individual performances.
On third-and-six from the Tampa Bay 28-yard line and with the Panthers threatening to at least tack on three more important points, linebacker Shelton Quarles blitzed Delhomme, stripping him off the ball. White scooped up the loose ball for his second fumble recovery of the half and the Bucs were in business at their 39-yard line and still trailing by only two points.
Seizing on the moment and the momentum, the Buccaneers' offense drove down the field to the Carolina 11-yard line, fueled by a clutch third-down pass from Simms to receiver Ike Hilliard and a 27-yard gain to tight end Alex Smith. Matt Bryant's 28-yard field goal put the Buccaneers up by one point with 5:01 remaining in the half.
"They're big – the plays we weren't getting in the first two games," said tight end Alex Smith, commenting on the offense's response to Rice's plays. "For whatever reason, the ball wasn't bouncing our way, but finally we got some breaks and we were able to capitalize. Our defense played great. I tip my hat off to them. We got ourselves stuck in that 17-0 hole, and we had to fight back. But having those big plays changed the game big time."
The contagion was still in the air a drive later when linebacker Derrick Brooks batted down a third-and-four pass, forcing the Panthers to punt with 2:43 left in the game and seemingly giving the Buccaneers control of their own destiny.
"It's always contagious," Rice said, explaining how one big defensive play leads to another. "Like I said, prior to this game, what we needed was a dominant effort. We needed to step up, and I tried to do that today, but the overall objective is to get the victory and we didn't get that. But we showed that we could be dominant. We showed that we are dominant. We showed that we have a lot of fight in us."
Unfortunately, that's all the Buccaneers have to cling to at this point. Denied a win by the foot of Panthers' kicker John Kasay, the Bucs now have to reassess their NFC South situation and muster up the fight to dig themselves out of an 0-3 hole. It's something for which they again will turn to Rice – and the rest of the Bucs' veterans – for guidance in accomplishing. And Rice is ready to lead the way.
"I think we've finally turned a corner in learning what we need to get accomplished – the energy level that we need to play with, how dramatic we need to make this game in order to get a victory, how focused you need to be to see what you're going after, understanding that if you don't give your absolute best, you can lose a game," Rice said. "I think we – considering all things – as a team grew up today.
"We learned something today. We grew today. If you take anything out of the last three games that we've played now, I think this is a hallmark game as to where we're going as a team. I'm not going to say that I'm happy losing, but I'm proud fighting."