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A big thank you

A poor decision sinks the Saints. Then a gutsy decision boosts the Bucs.

By RICK STROUD, Times Staff Writer
Published December 3, 2007


NEW ORLEANS - Two coaches. Two plays.

The Bucs' Jon Gruden and the Saints' Sean Payton were like Riverboat gamblers playing near the banks of the Mississippi on Sunday.

At stake was the game, the NFC South championship and, perhaps, the season.

Having essentially put the game away, holding a 23-20 lead, the Saints had the ball at midfield and needed only a first down to run out the clock and pull within a game of the Bucs.

But Payton ordered a reverse. Saints running back Reggie Bush made an errant pitch that was recovered by the Bucs' Jovan Haye.

A few plays later, Gruden made the call of the year.

In position for a 46-yard field goal that would tie the score and likely force an overtime, Gruden decided to go for it on fourth and 1 from the Saints 28.

Running back Earnest Graham, on his fourth straight rushing attempt, made the first down.

"Why not? Control of the division is on the line," Bucs receiver Ike Hilliard said. "You have to tip your hat to Coach Gruden for making a (gutsy) call. Biggest call I've ever been around."

The play led to Luke McCown's 4-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jerramy Stevens with 17 seconds left, propelling the Bucs to a thrilling 27-23 win. The victory virtually locked up the division for the Bucs, who own a three-game lead over the Saints and Panthers (and own tiebreakers over both) with four games left.

Making his first start in three seasons for the injured Jeff Garcia, McCown completed 29 of 37 passes (including his first 15) for 313 yards and two touchdowns. He also had two plays that nearly lost the game - a miscommunication with Joey Galloway that resulted in a 53-yard interception return for a touchdown by Mike McKenzie and a sack in the end zone by Will Smith for a safety with 3:44 remaining.

"The bigger one, I think, was the safety," McCown said. "I was just trying to do too much. I take full responsibility for that. But you can't say enough about the defense manning up and getting the ball back."

You also can't say enough about the lunacy of the call by Payton, who apologized to his team after the game.

"That was a disappointing loss and probably the worst job I have done as a head coach since I have been here," the second-year coach said. "We got the safety late and had the ball back at midfield with four minutes left. Obviously, I regret the play call that resulted in a fumble and cost us a game. It's disappointing for our players and our staff to lose a game like that. We had every opportunity to win it. It starts with me.

"We thought it gave us a chance to break one open. It was a reverse to (receiver Devery Henderson). We just didn't handle the toss well enough."

Gruden's big decision turned out much better. After sending out the field-goal unit, Gruden changed his mind during the two-minute warning. Why?

Center John Wade had just left the game with cramps. Fullback B.J. Askew was limping on a sprained ankle. And there was no guarantee Matt Bryant would make the field goal or the defense could hold the Saints if they got the ball back.

"I wanted to go for it. I really did," Gruden said. "But you've got to think about it. You've got to think about the ramifications. We didn't have any timeouts left. That was a strange game."

On the sideline, Garcia was plotting with defensive backs coach Raheem Morris to lobby Gruden to go for it.

"I think Raheem Morris may have gone over there," Garcia said. "We talked about it together to gang up on Coach. Maybe Raheem did. Maybe it was (offensive line coach) Bill Muir. I don't know. I'm glad all of a sudden Coach made that call and put it on the offensive line to get that yard."

Linebacker Derrick Brooks said he hoped Bryant would make the field goal and was preparing to return on defense.

"Mike Alstott came down to me and said, 'We're going for it,'" Brooks said. "I said, 'Well, maybe we're going to try to drive them offsides. I don't know.' He said, 'No, we don't have any timeouts.' "

Graham was seething on the bench, having just been stopped on third and 2.

"When he made that call, I just knew in that situation we were going to get it," Graham said. "There was no way we were going to leave that out there on the field."

The play is called 96 Power, the Bucs' signature running play to the right side behind tackle Davin Joseph, guard Jeremy Trueblood, tight end Anthony Becht and pulling left guard Arron Sears.

"I'm wanting to go for it," defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin said. "You're on the road, and you've got a chance to put it away. Oh, I was so fired up! But the guys have got to execute it now. It wasn't like he pulled some bootleg. It was just a power. He couldn't have had any more people than he had."

Gruden believed his team was running out of gas.

"You don't want to get on the airplane - and even if you make the 46-yard field goal and go to overtime - we're depleted," he said. "You're running out of guys. The center, the fullback, we're on our third halfback, the fourth quarterback and there's no guarantee we're going to (hold the Saints to) three-and-out. So hey, get ... out there, let's get the first down and see what we can do."

So Gruden made the call, Graham made the first down and 6-foot-7 Stevens leaped over Jason Craft, the 5-10 cornerback, in the end zone for a touchdown.

Two coaches. Two plays. Too much.