TAMPA BAY 19, NEW YORK GIANTS 13: Life goes on without Keyshawn as Tampa Bay gets rare big plays to keep playoff hopes alive.
By RICK STROUD
Published November 25, 2003
TAMPA - Jon Gruden may be on to something.
All he has to do is find another troublemaker, escort him to the plank and toss him overboard.
This week it was Keyshawn Johnson. Next week, Captain Hook might want to sniff out another rat, call a news conference and let the blood hit the wall.
That's because every time someone loses his job, the Bucs win.
With their Pro Bowl receiver disruptive, distractive and dismissed, the suddenly disciplined Bucs snapped a three-game losing streak by beating the New York Giants 19-13 Monday night.
With Johnson watching on television near his Los Angeles home, Charles Lee, one of his replacements at split end, turned a short slant into a career-long 53-yard touchdown reception.
The Bucs improved to 5-6 and kept their slim wild-card chances alive.
At 4-7, the Giants likely will spend the postseason watching like Keyshawn.
"It really just made us sit back and rethink things," safety Dwight Smith said. "Football has a funny way of humbling guys. To see a guy with the stats like Keyshawn, and for that to happen to him, you have to sit back and appreciate what you have."
Even the defense, which had come up empty in five games in which it had the lead or was tied in the fourth quarter, must have felt the breeze from Gruden's ax.
Pro Bowl safety John Lynch virtually sealed the victory with his interception of Kerry Collins with 3:30 left. Smith broke up a likely touchdown pass and picked off Collins in the end zone, one of four Giants turnovers.
The Bucs still needed one last stop. With Gruden eschewing a field goal that would've given his team a touchdown lead, Michael Pittman was stuffed on fourth and 1 from the Giants 12 with 2:15 left, turning the ball over on downs.
But defensive tackle Warren Sapp recorded his second sack of Collins on third down. On fourth and 19 from their 4, the Giants elected to snap the ball out of the end zone for a safety. But Bucs tight end Ken Dilger recovered the ensuing onside kick.
"Offensively, we had some good moments, although we did some very, very illogical things at key moments, penalties and turning the ball over," Gruden said. "The plus is, we won the game."
Quarterback Brad Johnson was effective despite playing without the Bucs' leading receiver the past three seasons. He finished 22-of-32 for 269 yards with one touchdown and an interception. Eighteen completions were to wideouts.
Lee, a fourth-year pro who had been cut twice by the Bucs this season, caught five passes for 91 yards and the TD. Keenan McCardell caught nine for 83 yards, and Joe Jurevicius had three for 43 yards.
"We went trips (three receivers) to strong side and I got isolated on the back side one-on-one," Lee said. "Brad made a good throw, hit me in stride, I slipped a tackle and was off to the races.
"It's been a long four years in this league. A lot of frustrating times, but I had a lot of people in my corner telling me to just hang on, from being cut to brought back and being cut and brought back.
"A lot of guys on the team know what I've been going through as far as being frustrated and feeling as though you can bring something to the team; sometimes you're in a situation with older guys that have been there, done that. It was an unfortunate situation for Key, but it was a big break for me."
Lee's biggest cheerleader might have been Keyshawn Johnson himself, who caught only the first quarter before leaving to catch a flight.
"I'm happy for Charles and happy that they won," Johnson said. "It goes to show that Charles Lee belongs in this league and all you need is an opportunity to do well. Charles will take advantage of it."
The Bucs led 14-3 at halftime thanks to Lee's touchdown and a 1-yard scoring plunge by running back Thomas Jones.
But disciplined or not, the world champions can't seem to keep from making it interesting at Raymond James Stadium.
A fumble by receiver Reggie Barlow at midfield was recovered by Michael Strahan. That led to Matt Bryant's second field goal, a 30-yarder that cut the lead to 14-6.
Then Brad Johnson made arguably his worst pass of the season. Facing pressure, he tried to squeeze a pass into Jurevicius that was intercepted by cornerback Frank Walker and returned 56 yards for a touchdown.
This time, the Bucs defense was up to the challenge. Having blown leads at Carolina and yielding winning drives to the Colts, Saints and Packers, Tampa Bay finally got a critical stop in the fourth quarter.
With the Giants trailing 17-13 with 8:23 left, the Bucs stopped running back Tiki Barber on third and 1 at 42.
Then Lynch sealed it by intercepting Collins' long pass to David Tyree.
Gruden gained his team's attention by deactivating Keyshawn Johnson for the final six games. In fact, it was hard to tell that the Bucs missed him.
Moving up to the third receiver spot, Lee caught a slant pass, got a great block from McCardell and slipped tackles by Will Allen and Ryan Clark before high-stepping into the end zone.
The Bucs took a 7-0 lead when Jones hurdled across the goal line with 11:21 left in the second quarter.
Jones, who alternated with Pittman at tailback, capped a 43-yard drive in 10 plays with the Bucs' first rushing touchdown in eight games. It also broke a streak of three games without a first-half touchdown.