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McCardell becoming the Bucs' futility man

Week in and week out, the receiver provides offensive spark in losing causes.

RICK STROUD
Published November 16, 2003

TAMPA - One day, the trip to the locker room might be aboard his teammates' shoulders. The sellout crowd may spill into the parking lot still chanting his name. The first drop of Korbel could splash on his face.

And Keenan McCardell finally will celebrate.

Despite the game-saving attempts of their veteran receiver, the Bucs have had more near-rescues than Gilligan this season.

Four times, McCardell has produced potential winning or tying touchdown receptions only to see the Bucs lose all four games.

The 12th-year veteran is fifth in the NFC with seven touchdowns and the Bucs record is 0-5 when he scores them.

"Keenan's had an unbelievable year this year, he really has," quarterback Brad Johnson said. "Because we've lost some games, he probably hasn't been given the credit he deserves as an individual."

Last weekend, with his team trailing by six in the fourth quarter, McCardell made a diving, one-handed, 36-yard touchdown reception between two Carolina defenders.

"That's got to be one of the greatest (catches) of all-time," Panthers safety Mike Minter said.

But the Bucs defense failed to live up to its expectations again, allowing the Panthers to drive 78 yards for a touchdown with no timeouts in the final two minutes in a 27-24 loss.

The situation was strikingly similar to McCardell's effort Nov. 2 against the Saints, when his 30-yard catch on fourth and 10 pulled the team within an extra point with 2:08 remaining.

But before McCardell could unbuckle his chin strap, Saints quarterback Aaron Brooks completed five passes with no timeouts to set up John Carney's winning 47-yard field goal.

The Bucs have taken turns driving the bulldozer through his sand sculpture.

In the home opener, McCardell's 6-yard touchdown catch with no time on the clock tied the score against Carolina, capping a furious 82-yard drive with no timeouts. But Martin Gramatica, who had not missed an extra point in 129 career attempts, had his PAT blocked and the Bucs lost in overtime.

How does McCardell handle so many cancellations of his party?

"You know what? You just keep fighting," McCardell said. "It's not an individual game, it's a team game. You never think it's over until the clock goes all zeros or they post the final score. All you can do is try to do more. Make more plays to help the team win.

"I've not played up to my expectations, even with what I've already done. It's not enough. I've got more expectations for myself than that. I expected to do more."

Even when McCardell appears to ice the game early, as he did with three touchdowns against the Colts, his teammates turn to puddles like snowmen in Ybor, blowing a 21-point lead in the final four minutes before losing in overtime.

"I think he's a great receiver," coach Jon Gruden said. "Look what he did last year. We didn't sign him until right before training camp. He had no offseason program, he didn't know anything about our offense. He missed 21/2 games or so with an injury, catches over 60 balls and is a force in the playoffs with two touchdowns in the Super Bowl."

McCardell, who needs 16 catches to reach 700, is having his best season as a pro. His six touchdown catches (he also recovered a fumble for a touchdown against the Colts), equal a career high.

This season, McCardell has become Johnson's favorite target, carrying the receiving load.

"I feel like our communication in the second year of the system, I feel like we kind of fit well with each other," Johnson said. "...He's running great and catching pretty much every ball I throw at him."

But for some reason, McCardell never seems to get the recognition he deserves.

He had four 1,000-yard receiving seasons at Jacksonville, but much of the attention went to fellow wideout Jimmy Smith. When McCardell signed as a free agent with the Bucs, Keyshawn Johnson already had established himself as the top receiver.

"I've never bought into that there's a Robin to every Batman thing," McCardell said. "That's something (the media) was into. There's no jealously. It's not about that. There's a lot of receivers in this league that wish they had another receiver that could play to the same level."

McCardell is on pace to set a personal record with more than 1,200 receiving yards.

"I don't know about Robin. I call him Batman," Gruden said. "He's a lead horse at receiver. The guy is a great player."

He just has nothing to celebrate.

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