There is a fine line between euphoria and deep disappointment in the make-or-break lives of NFL coaches. We see it every week, and it was never more evident than on Sunday at the Georgia Dome as the Buccaneers and their coach, Jon Gruden, fought to remain within reach of the playoffs in a game against the Falcons.
During its 2002 championship season, Tampa Bay beat Atlanta twice by a total of 38 points. But the Bucs have struggled to regain their stride since routing the Raiders in Super Bowl XXXVII, and these aren't the same Falcons either. Atlanta has better talent, more offensive weapons and a more effective pass rush than it had two years ago. Even when Gruden's offense knew the pass rush was coming hard, the line was powerless to protect quarterback Brian Griese, who was sacked seven times.
Still, Tampa Bay battled back from a 17-0 first-half deficit on a pair of touchdown passes from Griese, one of which was set up by an interception. And with 10:44 left, facing fourth-and-one at the Atlanta 28, the Bucs were in position to tie the game. But instead of a 45-yard Martin Gramatica field goal attempt, Gruden called a toss sweep to running back Michael Pittman, who was dropped for a two-yard loss. On the third play of the Falcons' ensuing possession Michael Vick's 49-yard touchdown pass to tight end Alge Crumpler capped the 24-14 Atlanta win.
Gruden's shunning the field goal was illogical. The Tampa Bay defense was playing well at the time; since taking its 17--0 lead with 10:25 left in the second quarter, Atlanta had only 14 net yards and no first downs to show for its six possessions. Granted, Gramatica had missed on seven of his previous nine tries from beyond 40 yards, and he was still bothered by a hip flexor injury. But if you don't have enough faith in your kicker to try a 45-yard field goal in the fourth quarter of a tight game, why is he even in uniform?
"We're not playing for a tie," an acerbic and hoarse Gruden said after the game, outside the Bucs' locker room. "Did you see our injury report? Gramatica was questionable this week."
"But," a reporter pointed out, "he kicked off fine today--70, 71 and 72 yards on his three kicks."
"Congratulations," Gruden said sarcastically. Then he added, "He's been struggling [beyond 40 yards]. You second-guess it all you want. We were 3--5. We're playing to win. We make that field goal--rah, rah, rah--then what?" Well, if your defense can contain Vick again, you get the ball back and try to win the game with another field goal or a touchdown.
The loss dropped Tampa Bay (3--6) four games behind the Falcons (7-2) in the NFC South. But in a broader sense, just where are the Bucs headed, and how is the workaholic Gruden coping with his team's 10-15 performance over the last 25 games?
In the past year Gruden and general manager Bruce Allen have turned over an aging, costly roster by jettisoning veterans like Keyshawn Johnson, Warren Sapp, John Lynch and Keenan McCardell. In time, the younger Bucs will be better for having done so. Rookie wideout Michael Clayton (48 catches, 14.3-yard average) is going to be a star; the first-round draft pick out of LSU is fast, sure-handed and tough. Griese, who became the starter in Week 6, has been a terrific find, completing 69.7% of his passes and getting the upper hand in the battle to come with Chris Simms, a third-round draft choice in 2003, next summer. However, the line, pieced together largely through bargain free-agent shopping, remains a weakness, allowing 27 sacks and clearing the way for only 3.7 yards per running attempt.
Defensively, Tampa Bay appears to have the right mix of youth and experience, and the unit was ranked sixth in the league entering Sunday's game. The Falcons broke through for 205 yards rushing, but that was partly because mainstay defensive tackle Booger McFarland was out with a strained triceps.
"I think we have faith that we're going in the right direction," Pro Bowl cornerback Ronde Barber, an eight-year veteran, said last week. "It's easy for me to say because I wasn't one of the guys they got rid of in the off-season. But what they're trying to do, obviously, is get rid of a guy a year too soon rather than a year too late."
Barber says Gruden is coaching just as he did in 2002. "He expects the play to be executed the exact same way it appears in his head, every time," he says. "He's the best I've ever seen at motivation."
Nevertheless, in the wake of Sunday's loss, Gruden was in a sour frame of mind. When asked if he believes the team is headed in the right direction, he replied in a voice dripping with sarcasm, "Sure, everything's going great. All the [recent] draft picks are Pro Bowl guys. The team was in great [salary] cap shape when I took over, and I've taken this house and burned it down."
Then he took a breath. "We've got some good guys on this team," he said. "We'll be back. I'm very confident we'll be back."