Martin Gramatica's four field goals, including the winner with five seconds left, allow the Bucs to avoid an upset.
By RICK STROUD, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times, published October 28, 2002
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Bucs defensive tackle Warren Sapp, like the score, was fit to be tied.
With Tampa Bay trailing Carolina by three late Sunday and its struggling offense facing fourth and 3, Sapp issued his own two-minute warning to coach Jon Gruden.
"Go for it! You don't have 3 (expletive) yards in you?' Sapp shouted. "(Gruden) said, 'What!' I backed off and said, 'Whatever you want to do.' "
With his offense having failed to score a touchdown in eight quarters, 3 yards probably felt like 3 miles to Gruden. But while the Bucs need binoculars to see the goal line, the upright is always within sight for Martin Gramatica.
The Pro Bowl placekicker made four field goals, including a 53-yarder to tie the score with 1:55 left and a 47-yarder with five seconds left to give the Bucs a 12-9 victory over the Panthers.
As the Bucs celebrated in the locker room, Gruden searched for Monday morning quarterbacks.
Jon told us, 'Is anybody second-guessing me on that long field goal?"' Bucs cornerback Ronde Barber said. "Everybody yelled out, 'Hell no!' Like Jon says, we've got Barry Bonds up with two guys on base. That's Martin Gramatica. He's capable of hitting the three-run homer every time."
And fortunately for the Bucs, their defense is capable of pitching a shutout.
Tampa Bay's defense produced a record-setting performance, limiting the Panthers to 130 total yards, including a club-best 15 in the first half, to improve to 6-2.
The fewest yards the Bucs have allowed is 80 against Kansas City on Dec.16, 1979.
The Bucs equaled their best start after eight games, set in 1979, and tied for first in the NFC South with New Orleans, which lost 37-35 to Atlanta.
It was a costly victory, though.
Defensive tackle Anthony McFarland broke his right forearm, but it is not known how long he will be out.
The injury didn't hurt the Bucs on Sunday. Panthers rookie quarterback Randy Fasani was pressured into completing just 5 of 18 passes for 46 yards. He was sacked 3 times, knocked down 5 others, hit 12 times and threw 3 interceptions.
"Fasani wasn't going to do anything," Barber said. "I don't know if it was the coaches or him. They just didn't want to throw the ball."
Even so, the Panthers' fourth-ranked defense was nearly good enough to beat the Bucs by itself.
Rob Johnson, making his first start in place of injured quarterback Brad Johnson, was mostly ineffective. He was sacked six times and entered the fourth quarter trailing 9-3.
Gramatica's second field goal, a 52-yarder, cut the deficit to three. But Johnson, trying the force the ball to Keyshawn Johnson, threw an interception, and the Bucs punted on their next possession with just more than three minutes left.
"He did some good things," Gruden said of Johnson, who was 22-of-33 for 179 yards and one interception. "But there were seven or eight plays where he had basically no chance, and it's a hard evaluation when things like that occur. If there's one thing I can say about this guy, he managed our game.
"He did keep our team moving, and he won the game as a starter. And that's exciting. I thought he got hit a couple of times -- bad -- in the first half. But it never phased him. And that's the sign of a winner and a real big building block for Rob Johnson."
The Bucs' big break came when Tom Tupa's 37-yard punt was muffed by Steve Smith, and Aaron Stecker recovered at the Carolina 42. That led to Gruden's decision to let Gramatica attempt a 53-yard field goal rather than go for it on fourth and 3.
"I was thinking about going for it at that time," Gruden said. "And I looked at Gramatica, and I said, 'Can you make this?' And there was no doubt in his mind. He felt he was going to make the kick, and I thought it was the right thing to do, tie the football game and let Martin have a chance to do it for us."
Entering the game, Gramatica had missed three of four field goals and was 11-of-16 this season.
"It was an amazing performance, not just the last one. The first one, the second one and the third one," Gruden said.
"He's a guy that has struggled from the standpoint that we have not given him good looks at the goal post."
The Bucs' best drive was their last. Taking over at his 28 with one timeout and 1:20 left, Johnson hit Keyshawn Johnson on passes of 12 and 9 yards and ran for another first down, injuring his left leg on the play.
Enter backup Shaun King, who connected on a 7-yard pass to Karl Williams to get Gramatica closer for the winning kick.
"We got within his radar. The rest is history," Gruden said.
"It's a game I'm sure they're sick about on their side."
Before Gramatica made his kick, linebacker Derrick Brooks beckoned his teammates to get off the bench to get a better look at the kick.
"Some of the ugliest wins are the prettiest," Brooks said. "Look at the bench those last two drives. Everybody was up on the sidelines. The defense was up, and that's what it's all about.
"I told everybody, 'Get up because everybody needs to see this win. I don't care if you're hurt. Get up off the bench and see the win. And we did."'