By ROGER MILLS, JOANNE KORTH
Published September 3, 2004
HOUSTON - With the release of 18 players by 4 p.m. Sunday, Thursday night's preseason finale against the Texans was a critical last opportunity to impress the coaching staff.
Some players on the fence took advantage, others did not.
Cornerbacks Ronyell Whitaker, Corey Ivy and Torrie Cox all had their moments as they scramble for the backup spot behind starters Brian Kelly and Ronde Barber and nickel back Mario Edwards.
Whitaker had an interception, his first of the preseason, and Ivy led the team with eight tackles. "The preseason has been solid and I feel I came out and did a good job," Whitaker said. "I could have done a little bit more, in my opinion. But the competition is tough, everyone is making plays. It's the league and I understand that. But, I'm not giving back the interception."
Receiver Charles Lee saw his first action and snagged three catches for 55 yards. Tight end Will Heller, who entered the game leading the team in receptions (nine), added his first touchdown of the preseason.
But the news wasn't good for running back Earnest Graham, who was stopped on the goal line, and running back Brandon Bennett, who barely played.
Others, such as safety Will Hunter, linebacker Dustin Cohen and guard/long-snapper John Garrison, saw limited snaps.
"We've got a lot of guys on the bubble, a lot of guys who are in the picture," coach Jon Gruden said. "I thought there were some impressive things (Thursday night) and every night from a lot of young guys."
WOBBLY LEG: Kicker Martin Gramatica's struggles continued as the sixth-year veteran missed his first field goal of the game, kicking a 47-yarder short and to the right. Gramatica, however, converted from 20 yards later in the first half.
It has been a difficult preseason for Gramatica, who had hoped to use training camp and the preseason to correct kicking problems that date to last season. Entering the preseason finale, Gramatica had converted five of his eight field-goal attempts.
"He didn't make the field goal," Gruden said. "My thoughts are very positive about Martin. But, I wish he had made that."
KEENAN IN THE HOUSE: Receiver Keenan McCardell, a native of Houston, wasn't going to let his team play in his home state without being there. Of course, there was a twist. McCardell, in the 36th day of his holdout, watched from the luxury suite owned by Texans defensive back Aaron Glenn. Due to make $2.5-million this season and $2.75-million next year, the 34-year-old wants to be paid close to the average of No. 1 receivers, approximately $4.3-million. The Bucs have refused to renegotiate his contract.
STARTING ROTATION: In the perpetual search for healthy bodies, the Bucs continued to rotate their players and opened Thursday's game with a slew of new starters. Defensive tackle Ellis Wyms for Anthony McFarland, linebacker Jeff Gooch for Shelton Quarles, cornerback Mario Edwards for Kelly, receiver Bill Schroeder for Joey Galloway, receiver Michael Clayton for Tim Brown . The Bucs also started the game with no tight end and two fullbacks, veterans Greg Comella and Mike Alstott.
On the offensive line, the Bucs switched guards, moving Matt Stinchcomb to the left and Cosey Coleman to right. Also, right tackle Kenyatta Walker stayed in Tampa tending to a sore knee. It was not thought to be serious.
PITTMAN'S FAREWELL: Running back Michael Pittman was busy in his last game before a three-game suspension for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy. Pittman, whose suspension begins Sunday, carried 12 times for 71 yards and caught three passes for 25. Pittman was supposed to play only the first quarter, but asked Gruden if he could play in the second half, and Gruden agreed. Pittman played with the third-team offense, breaking off a 27-yard run to the Texans 9 that setup a touchdown.
LEE SIGHTING: Lee made his preseason debut after missing the first three games with a hamstring injury. He had catches of 9, 13 and 33 yards, the longest a diving, juggling sideline catch. Lee, who made a splash with the Bucs late last season after Keyshawn Johnson was deactivated, is battling for a roster spot, but Gruden likes his size - 6 feet 3, 227 pounds - and ability to gain yards after the catch.