Blocked & Blue
Roy Cummings, The Tampa Tribune, published 15 September 2003

For those who just recently jumped on the bandwagon, this is what it was like during those many dark days and lean years at Tampa Stadium. Performing even the most basic of football operations was often a challenge too great for the Bucs back then, and it was that way again Sunday at Raymond James Stadium.

In their first official game back home as Super Bowl champions, the Bucs couldn't block without holding, couldn't tackle without roughing, couldn't substitute players without substituting illegally. Worst of all, they seemingly couldn't kick a field goal or potential game-winning extra point without kicking the ball directly into the outstretched arms of a defender. ``We looked like Super Bowl chumps,'' Keyshawn Johnson said aptly in the wake of a 12-9 overtime loss to Carolina in which the Bucs had two field goals and an extra point blocked.

For the Bucs, it marked the second time in as many years that they have dropped a home opener to a division foe. For many, though, the 17 penalties they committed and the three blocked kicks made it a loss like no other. ``When you get seven points taken away by blocked kicks, that's just unbelievable,'' Jon Gruden said. ``I've never been involved in a game like that in my life.''

Gruden wasn't alone. ``I've never been involved in a game with that many penalties,'' quarterback Brad Johnson said. ``If you want to call a penalty on every play, you probably can. It seemed like we came pretty close today.''

It wasn't just the Bucs who couldn't seem to play by the rules. The Panthers were flagged 16 times for 120 yards. The Bucs lost 168 yards as a result of their 17 infractions. ``You just can't leave that kind of yardage out on the field and expect to win in this league,'' center John Wade said. ``It just doesn't help you. But it's not like we got knocked out of the playoffs or anything.''

No, the Bucs are still in the playoff race. In fact, they're in the same position they were a year ago at this time, 1-1 and down a game in the NFC South. ``That's right,'' left tackle Roman Oben said. ``This is exactly where we were last year - and we all know how that turned out. Still, it would have been a beautiful ending.''

For a moment, it seemed certain it would be. After struggling to score all day, the Bucs drove 82 yards in 11 plays to tie the game at 9 on a 6-yard touchdown pass from Johnson to Keenan McCardell. As Martin Gramatica lined up to attempt the extra point, the Panthers called a timeout, ostensibly to freeze Gramatica. It turned out, though, they froze the Bucs' line. Again. Having already broken down twice on field goal tries, the line melted in the middle a third time, allowing defensive tackle Kris Jenkins to penetrate and leap high enough to get a hand on Gramatica's kick. ``It's something that happens every single game, people trying to blast through the middle,'' long snapper Ryan Benjamin said. ``We should be 100 percent on that all the time. But today, there was leakage.''

It was more like a flood. And it was mostly Jenkins who came pouring in. He got his hand on the first of the two field goal tries that were blocked, while Julius Peppers got through to block the other. ``You can't let it get you down,'' Gramatica said. ``There's still a lot more football to play. We just have to line it up and kick again. We have Atlanta next week and we have to be ready.''

Based on the defense's performance the first two weeks, there's no reason to believe the unit won't be ready. That unit has not surrendered a touchdown this year. It did surrender 142 yards to workhorse running back Stephen Davis, but after some early struggles it found a way to neutralize not only Davis, but the entire Panthers offense. The Bucs' offense, however, looks as though it may still need some time to hit stride. After being limited to 2.9 yards per carry against the Eagles, their backs ran for an average of just 2.7 yards against the Panthers.

Nevertheless, several Bucs said they were encouraged by the way they moved the ball between the 20s and were especially happy with the way they moved the ball through the air. Johnson passed for 339 yards on 34 of 61 passing. ``We moved the ball pretty well today for the most part,'' Wade said. ``We just didn't finish. That's where we have to get better. There and we have to eliminate the penalties.''

The same goes for the special teams. Penalties cost that unit as well, but not as much as their inability to stop Steve Smith during a 52-yard overtime punt return in overtime. Smith's return allowed the Panthers to make the game- winning field goal despite the fact they gained just 11 yards on five plays during the ensuing offensive series. ``We gave them a lot of breaks,'' Bucs defensive end Simeon Rice said. ``I mean, they're a good team. They're a really good team defensively and on offense they're very practical. But it was just one game.''

It was, however, one that brought back a lot of bad memories and one that won't be easy to forget. ``We had a chance to kick an extra point to have one of the most dramatic victories I've ever been a part of, and we just didn't get it done,'' Gruden said. ``That's really too bad. It stinks.''