Football is entertainment, and against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this week it was entertainment at an all-time high. Close games in the NFL will come down to just a play or two in one team's favor giving them the upper hand and usually leaning heavily toward the victory. With many close games during an NFL season, fewer mental mistakes by young, inexperienced players can make a huge impact. That happened in this game on a play where you could blame a coach or a rookie offensive tackle.
The play: The Bucs, with a 16-13 lead, had the ball on the Vikings 26-yard line with third-and-1 and just 7:40 left in the game. They came out in I-formation and I turned to VU writer John Holler and said, "Basic football, run from I-formation up the middle." I said this knowing that if the Bucs failed they would still have a 42-yard field goal attempt by Pro Bowl kicker Martin Gramatica. However, the Bucs tried a pass to rookie Jameel Cook, which was incomplete. On that particular play, holding was called on rookie offensive tackle Kenyatta Walker, making it third-and-11 from the 36. Tony Dungy stated afterwards: "Had we missed the third-and-1, we would have kicked the field goal. On the third-and-11 we were trying to come up with a short pass completion to Mike Alstott to get half of it back and get a field goal attempt, but we were not able to do that."
Too far away now to attempt a field goal, the Bucs punted and put the ball on Minnesota's 4-yard line, giving Tampa Bay its best opportunity with a struggling Vikings offense having to go 96 yards against the Bucs' top-rated defense for the winning score. The Vikings offense did score. But the Bucs ended the game on the 18-yard line and would have attempted a field goal had their previous drive — when Walker was called for a rookie holding mistake — also given them a field goal. Well, of course, 11 plays later the Vikings go ahead for good and the rest is history.
Bad call on third down by the Bucs. Rookie mistake. Game.
But let me end with a quote from Vikings defensive backs coach Willie Shaw on rookie Eric Kelly's interception at the end of the game. "That was a big play for him. His confidence had been down a little bit, just like most rookies are early in the year. He hung in there and everyone kept asking me if I was going to bench him this week. I said, ‘No, we're going to hang with him.' Rookies are going to make mistakes. It wasn't his mistakes that have killed us. It's just been the little things." Go figure. In this game, a Vikings rookie made a game-saving play and a Bucs rookie made a game-turning mistake, and I like it that way. VU
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