It was close, so painfully, so tantalizingly close. Ten inches, maybe.
The rookie back lay on the plastic grass like a man lying on heaven's porch, and success was just beyond his reach.
Did I say 10 inches? Make that 8, maybe 6.
It was as close as the other side of your laptop, as close as your hands on the steering wheel, as close as the bank teller on the other side of the glass. Five inches, come to think of it. Maybe 3.
In the end, that's how close the Bucs were to being the best by-golly team in the NFC.
They were here, and a first down was the width of your fist away, and a touchdown was the length of your arm. It was late in the game, and the Bucs were that close to victory, and to validation, and to a 6-2 record. A modest little gain, followed by another modest little gain, and even to those of us who had chuckled at his bravado, Raheem Morris wouldn't have sounded so silly, would he?
And the Bucs … did … not … gain … an … inch.
They lost. They lost on the big play, and they lost in the big game, and they lost to a big rival. As it turns out, they lost because the big back picked the wrong hole.
The thing about frustration is that the closer you come, the more of it you feel. And so the Bucs' final play might sting for a while. It was fourth down and inches, with 2:44 to play, and the Bucs were on the Falcons 2. The play call was for rookie LeGarrette Blount to follow defensive tackle Roy Miller (playing fullback) up the middle, and sure enough, a hole opened. But Blount veered to the right and was tackled for no gain.
Oh, you can say this for the Bucs. They have won games when they did not play nearly this well. In fact, if you are trying to predict how they might fare in the second half of the season, this was more promising than any game the Bucs have played. Playing against a quality team, in a place where the Falcons turn into the Colts, the Bucs once again looked like an improving, maturing football team. Once again, they played like more than the sum of their statistics.
Yet, they lost. And in losing, they left it to the rest of us to try to measure just how short of excellence they really are.
Besides, you know, inches.
Start with this: They are a monster away. Maybe a monster and a beast.
They need a Mike Singletary. They need a Jack Lambert. They need one of those snarling, snapping defensive players who, frankly, scares quarterbacks into wearing diapers. They need a Warren Sapp. They need a Bruce Smith. They need someone whom Roger Goodell keeps on double-secret probation. A vicious outside linebacker, maybe. A relentless defensive end. A ruthless safety. A Derrick Brooks. A John Lynch.
Did you see the Falcons cut through the Bucs defense for most of the afternoon? The Bucs could not stop the run, and they could not rush the passer, and they could not slow down the Falcons. Even in a good start, there has been too much of that for the Bucs. Too often, they just look like a team trying to hang on.
In other words, the Bucs need to spend next offseason adding defensive playmakers. They need someone to make a crunching stop at a crucial moment and add fire to his teammates.
On their way to being the best team in the NFC, the Bucs could also use a little more muscle in their offensive line. Granted, the Bucs played with two backups on the line, but for most of the game, the Bucs seemed to be running uphill.
Look, even considering his wrong turn near the goal line, Blount has been impressive so far. But here's why the decision to run him on the Bucs' final two plays can be second-guessed. The Bucs aren't strong enough to merely muscle their way for a first down, especially not against a five-man defensive line.
Consider this: Over his final five running plays, Blount ended up with a loss of 1. Think about that. Blount for minus-1, Blount for minus-2, Blount for no gain and Blount for 2. And with fourth and inches, you're going to him again?
With the game on the line, I would have preferred the ball in Josh Freeman's hands. After all, Freeman has proved himself to be the team's best player, and its best player in the fourth quarter, and its best player on the road. Yet, with the game on the line, Freeman threw only one time — a bubble screen that was ruled a lateral.
Ask yourself this: Wouldn't you like to have seen Freeman try to stick the ball in the end zone at least once? Twice, maybe? Wouldn't you have tweaked the script just a little?
Through the first half of the season, this is what the Bucs have done. They have left you wanting more. They have raised expectations. They have created possibilities. They have been better than anybody thought.
Now, they need to become even better.
At least, a few inches better.
Gary Shelton can be reached at email@example.com.