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HOUSTON - When the ball is bouncing around the quarterback's ankles, and the ball game, too, it is easy to find a place to hang the blame.
Luke McCown was mortal Sunday afternoon.
Rip him for that, if you wish.
This time, McCown was a couple of yards short of magical. This time, he was not a storybook passer turning his Sunday into an after-school special. There were plays when he held the ball too long. There were plays when he threw the ball too wild. There were more of those accursed "miscommunication" problems.
In other words, there were far too many plays in Sunday's 28-14 loss to the Houston Texans when McCown looked like a backup quarterback. The nerve of him. By the end of the day, even Bucs coach Jon Gruden sounded as if he could not wait to get Jeff Garcia back into the starting lineup.
Yeah, if you want, you can pin this one on McCown.
While you're at it, however, perhaps you should charge a few other suspects, too. The defense, for instance. The running game, for example. The special teams, for crying out loud. And pretty much everyone else, too.
McCown wasn't good enough Sunday afternoon. Then again, the rest of the Bucs weren't any better. That was the shame of losing a game when a division title hung in the balance.
When it comes to playing with a backup quarterback, there is an understanding across the NFL. To survive, a team has to be good enough in other areas to make up for it. It has to run better and block fiercer and tackle crisper. It has to make a diving catch here or break a big return there. It has to be a little more intense, a little more desperate.
With that in mind, did the Bucs really look like a team that could do damage in the playoffs?
And if so, where?
On defense? No. For a defense ranked fourth in the NFL coming in, the Bucs spent a lot of time playing chase. They were carved up by the immortal Sage Rosenfels. It was like watching a defense bleed to death from paper cuts. An observation: In the upcoming playoffs, there will be quarterbacks who are even better than Sage Rosenfels.
Running the ball? No. The Texans have been awful against the run all season, but except for back-to-back runs of 20 and 11 yards in the third quarter, the Bucs fizzled most of the day. Take away those two runs, and they had 15 carries for 40 yards. Earnest Graham ran the ball only five times in the second half.
Special teams? Nope. When Houston returned the opening kickoff of the second half for a touchdown, it reminded you that the last time that happened for the Bucs was, well, never.
It makes you wonder. How, exactly, did the Bucs plan on winning this game? Did they think McCown was going to throw for 400 yards? For crying out loud, the guy passed for 579 yards in two games. A few more plays around him, and that should have been plenty.
As far as the Bucs losing a game, no one should be alarmed. With a three-game division lead, they were playing with house money, anyway. But at this point of the season, when teams start to scramble for as much homefield advantage as possible for the playoffs, a little more urgency might have been nice.
Granted, Garcia's return will help the Bucs. For instance, do you think he would miss Alex Smith wide on one play and Joey Galloway deep on the next, the way McCown did on back-to-back plays in the third quarter.
And, yes, you figure Garcia would have fared better in the key situations than McCown did against the Texans. There was third and 2 on the Houston 34 in the first quarter. There was second and 1 on the Houston 39 in the second quarter. There was third and 3 at the Houston 39 in the third quarter. In the fourth, the Bucs had first and 10 at the Houston 26 and third and 2 at the Houston 7.
In those five situations, the Bucs got no points. Zero.
Because of that, you could hardly blame Gruden when, 10 sentences into his postgame interview, he heralded Garcia's return.
"When we walk in the building (today), No. 7 will be back," said Gruden, who admitted he knew all along that Garcia would be out for two weeks but didn't say so because, all things considered, he prefers to be sneaky.
So wrap up Garcia's back and welcome him back. It'll be good to see him again.
As the playoffs approach, however, a game such as Sunday's ought to remind everyone that there are other questions that have to be answered.