Jon Gruden trusted his offensive line to lead the way for one critical yard at the end of Sunday's victory
Jon Gruden had just made the boldest in-game call of his coaching career, one that put him out on the ledge with no way of turning back. There was only one thing left to do.
Gruden and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers could laugh on Monday morning because the coach's decision to go for two at the end of a 36-35 rollercoaster ride against the Washington Redskins had paid off in victory by mere inches. Had Mike Alstott not fallen just across the goal line on his second-effort run up the gut, Monday morning could have been about second-guessing instead of fond reminiscing.
But the Bucs did win and are back on the playoff fast track at 6-3, and Gruden could chuckle as he admitted his feelings immediately after he reached the point of no return.
"I've never been associated with [anything like] that," said the Bucs coach, who may have taken his cue from a similar decision made by Kansas City's Dick Vermeil a week ago. "So I called the play and I ducked underneath the Gatorade cooler and listened to the crowd, to be honest with you."
The 65,000 fans in attendance, almost all of whom stayed through an amazing back-and-forth contest, went through their own range of emotions in the seconds surrounding Alstott's run. There was an amazed buzz when the offense ran onto the field, a tense rumble as the officials delayed their decision while running in from the sideline and a deafening roar when the touchdown signal was finally made. That last sound was the one for which Gruden was waiting.
Truth be told, the whole sequence following Edell Shepherd's diving, 30-yard touchdown catch in the final minute was nerve-jangling. Washington committed two penalties as the Bucs tried to get the tying extra point kick off, the second a blatant offside that resulted in a blocked kick.
Walt Harris, who had been beaten by Shepherd on the touchdown, came off the left corner and easily got in front of Matt Bryant's kick, which raised some very uncomfortable memories. Though the flags were immediate, and even a false-start call on the Bucs would have given them another chance to kick, one couldn't help think of the Carolina game in Week Two of the 2003 season. In the same end zone of the same stadium, the Bucs scored what appeared to be the winning touchdown in the final minute against the Panthers, only to have the extra point blocked, forcing an overtime that ended in a 12-9 Tampa Bay loss.
That game ushered the Bucs, defending Super Bowl champs at the time, into two years of ugly struggles. Another one like it might have sent Gruden over the edge.
"I would have walked down to Madeira Beach and jumped in the water if we would have lost the game on a blocked extra point," he said, still laughing but not without some grim undertones. "Really, that kind of entered my mind on that play. I just couldn't believe it. The drama, and it's going to end the night like this? Jiminy Christmas. But fortunately we got another chance and we capitalized. We capitalized, and that was great."
Ironically, the Redskins made that chance appear with their zeal to end the game early with a blocked kick. First it was "delay of game," which the defense gets when it commits some act to purposely try to get the offense to false start. The Bucs decided to take that penalty on the ensuing kickoff, meaning they would be able to kick from the 35 and have a much better chance of a touchback. (Incidentally, they did kick from the 35 after Alstott's conversion and they did get a touchback, which helped in the final-drive stand.)
Then came the blatant offside, and this time Gruden made the tough call. It may not have seemed like much, but that extra yard made a huge difference in Gruden's play-calling mind. And, obviously, it made all the difference in the world when Alstott barely nudged over the line.
"We thought about going for two at the two-yard line but we really weren't into our pure goal-line offense until we got to the one on that particular sequence," said Gruden. "I didn't want to run the ball from the two-yard line in our goal-line package. I didn't feel good about that. When we got to the one-yard line, we got back into our "Y-Steussie" personnel. We could bring our full-house backfield in there and slam it in there. With the threat of the play-action pass, I felt there was no question that was the thing to do."
That last point is interesting. It's easy to say know that everybody in the building knew the handoff was going to Alstott, but could the Redskin defenders really know for certain. Sure, Alstott had already succeeded on two-goal line dives, which would certainly bolster a play-caller's confidence in that play. On the other hand, isn't that also the perfect set-up to fake a handoff to the big back and try a rollout pass? Washington did just that with Clinton Portis and tight end Chris Cooley on a critical fourth-and-three on their last scoring drive and it worked like a charm. Sometimes a pass play seems like less of a risk than a running play into the teeth of a loaded defensive front.
In the end, though, Gruden chose to go with his "best player" for that situation, Mike Alstott, who has made a career of not being denied at the goal line. Those two points became numbers 395 and 396 in his career, and he said on Sunday that the run was probably his second-favorite career highlight after Super Bowl XXXVII.
After the game, Gruden handed out a number of game balls, then the players turned the tables and gave one to him. Obviously, the biggest reason was the confidence he showed in his offense by putting the game on their shoulders and asking them to make one more yard. That's who deserves the praise, he said on Monday.
"It was a special night last night for our team," he said. "I'm appreciative of their thoughtfulness and all that, but they won the game. It was great to win a game 36-35. We've won many 10-9 shootouts before. It was great to see some other guys step up and contribute, knowing that we have seven games to go."
The Bucs hope the season has a thrilling conclusion, too. As for any single game, though, it's going to be hard to match what took place on Sunday afternoon.