By the time Monday night's four-hour football drama was over Tuesday morning, did anyone remember the Tony Dungy homecoming story line? Didn't think so. The game hyped for the better part of two weeks as Dungy's return to Tampa became the story of a one-sided Bucs win, followed by the story of a furious Colts comeback deep into the night. Finally, it became a story about a kicker whose first miss of the year cost Indy a victory, only it still wasn't over. It was that kind of game. One the Bucs and their fans will not soon forget.
At a few minutes before 1 a.m., after Simeon Rice was called for a curious (at best) penalty for leaping on Mike Vanderjagt's overtime field goal miss, Indy's kicker got a second chance and booted it through by the slimmest of margins for a 38-35 win that sent the Bucs off the field with wounded hearts to match their long list of wounded bodies. Every game counts the same, coaches are fond of saying. Don't be fooled. Some are bigger than others, and this was one of them.
It was wild. It was late. It contained far more drama than was warranted, considering the Bucs held three 21-point leads. It was also the Bucs' most important game since their Super Bowl XXXVII triumph over Oakland, and they ultimately came up ailing. The reason this game was bigger than their season opener at Philadelphia had nothing to do with the much-hyped return of Dungy for the first time since Tampa Bay fired him after the 2001 season.
Cut up a 16- game season into quarters. The Bucs went 3-1 in each of those quarters last year. It put them in position to win their division, skip the wild-card round of the playoffs and ultimately win their first championship. Had they lost to the Eagles in the season opener, the Bucs could have bounced back with three straight wins, just as they did last year. Monday's loss, however, leaves Tampa Bay 2-2 and two games behind the surprising Carolina Panthers. Not an insurmountable deficit, but one the Bucs could have avoided.
Then there's the matter of Raymond James Stadium. Much was written and said these last two weeks about Dungy's return and what kind of welcome he'd receive. Predictably, the fans were gracious to the man whose conservative, defensive-minded approach made the Bucs consistent winners but whose offensive limitations kept the team from reaching the Super Bowl.
The last thing those fans wanted to see was a second straight homefield loss from Jon Gruden's souped-up version of their Bucs. Tampa Bay felt rightly embarassed by a 12-9 overtime loss to Carolina in the last game here. The taste of losing back-to-back home games - in overtime, no less - has to be sour indeed.
It looked for a while as though the Bucs would put any such notions to rest quickly and decisively. First, Brad Johnson exploited a mismatch when he found 243- pound linebacker Rob Morris trying to cover wide receiver Keenan McCardell. The result was an easy 74-yard touchdown pass. Tampa Bay's offensive line earned credit for that score, but it had even more to do with the next one. After Johnson was intercepted by Mike Doss, Bucs center John Wade made what looked to be the play of the game until late. Wade punched the ball from Doss' grasp, and McCardell turned the bouncing fumble into a 57-yard return for the second of his three TDs on the night.
Plays like that make the ESPN highlights, but it was the Bucs' next two scoring drives that seemed to put them in command. One covered 71 yards on 11 plays in the second quarter. The other chewed up 85 yards on 12 plays in the third frame. Together, those two drives took nearly 14 minutes off the clock, keeping Peyton Manning, Marvin Harrison and the high-octane Colts offense on the sideline for the equivalent of nearly a full quarter. As it turned out, the Bucs needed to keep Manning and Harrison off the field for almost two more hours.
The Colts scored five second-half touchdowns, thanks in part to a successful onside kick, some shoddy Bucs pass coverage and ill-timed penalties, to carry this game past its limit. By the time it was over, Indy's offense was converting third downs with ease, while the Bucs were playing with the near-equivalent of a second-team offense. Mike Alstott, Michael Pittman, Aaron Stecker and Keyshawn Johnson were among those out of the game with various injuries.
A defensive injury early in the game to CB Brian Kelly was perhaps an even bigger blow. Kelly would have covered Harrison all night. Instead, Tim Wansley was thrown to the wolves and devoured. Harrison caught 11 passes for 176 yards and two scores, almost single-handedly carrying the Colts to overtime. Even at that, the Bucs could have prevailed were it not for a head-scratching flag on Simeon Rice, who took a few steps and jumped in an effort to block Vanderjagt's first OT field goal attempt. Vanderjagt wound up missing for the first time this season, but an unsportsmanlike conduct flag for Rice's leap gave him another chance. Apparently, it's illegal to land on another player after such a leap. Said McCardell of Rice's play: ``You have to land somewhere.''
The Bucs landed at the .500 mark. ``An agonizing defeat,'' Gruden said. As it turned out, Dungy was the least of the story lines.