It was the best of wins; it was the worst of wins; it was a half of strong defense; it was a half of botched plays; we had 15 wins before us; we had 15 losses before us.
Ok, ok, so Charles Dickens wasn't technically a fan of the NFL. (Though how awesome would his wrap-up columns be?) However, if this were Charles's work, the Cliff's Notes would tell you this: The Bucs beat the Cleveland Browns. But while the Bucs' 1-0 record seems to promise greatness, the game was filled with reminders of the 0-7 team of yesteryear.
In fact, the first half of the game-or rather, the majority of the first half-felt all too familiar. First string running back Cadillac Williams couldn't gain any yardage on the ground. Josh Freeman's passes all seemed to be aimed somewhere between the receivers' feet and the defenders' hands. (Though the QB was playing with an injured thumb on his throwing hand, which almost certainly played a role in his accuracy issues.) Only place kicker Connor Barth managed to put the Bucs on the board, with a 49-yard field goal in the first quarter.
On the other side of the ball, things weren't much better. Offseason reports promised that a couple of high draft picks and another year in the same Raheem Morris-coached system would help fix an ailing unit. The Bucs would rush the passer-at least occasionally-and they would stop the run.
But in the first half the defense did very little, except suck. With apologies to Mr. Dickens for the crass choice of words, there is no other way to describe two defenders running into each other, and thereby allowing Carolina's Cleveland's Jake Delhomme to throw a 41-yard touchdown pass to receiver Mohamed Massaquoi. Or how the Bucs allowed Jerome Harrison a 39-yard run that set up an easy Peyton Hillis touchdown on the next play.
But, to the players' credit, and to the coaches' credit, and to Ronde Barber's credit most of all, the Bucs managed to turn the thing around. Or, well, they managed to turn the thing around enough. Barber intercepted a Delhomme pass with a little less than a minute in the half, and he ran like greased lightn... er, like ungreased lighting down the sideline and his 34-year-old legs almost, almost got him into the endzone. But when they didn't, Josh Freeman, Josh Freeman's wonky thumb, and rookie receiver Mike Williams took over. Williams caught a beautifully bobbley 3-yard pass, and the Bucs were only down by 4 at the half.
And that, apparently, was all the fire this young Buc team needed, because in the second half, the defense looked like a real-live professional unit. Granted, they were playing against the Cleveland Browns led by a demoralized Jake Delhomme, but the difference was apparent. Even E.J. Biggers, the temporary replacement for suspended cornerback Aqib Talib got in on the act, with an interception of his own.
The offense didn't look quite as frisky as the defense in the second half, but Freeman and his wonky thumb managed to throw a 33-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver/kick returner Micheal Spurlock. And despite the fact that the Bucs went into an ineffective version of conservative mode after the second touchdown, that was enough for the win. [Note: Conservative mode is most effective when the back does not fumble the ball. (cough)Earnest Graham (cough)]
And so the Bucs and the Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints sit tied atop the NFC South. For a young team, this success should be the kind of morale boost to set up a few more wins this season. And after last year, a few more wins really does sound like the best of times.
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