Quarterback Jeff Garcia has a solution for his team's inability to score touchdowns when it gets into the red zone — that area of the field between the opponent's 20-yard line and the goal line that has been a dead zone for the Bucs this season. Take a chance. Throw some caution — and maybe a football — to the wind. Give the guys with flypaper hands a chance to snag a pass from a defender.
"We can't go into every single play like there's going to be a perfect outlet, that there's going to be a person wide open and I'm going to hit that player and he's going to be able to run and make a first down," Garcia said. "Sometimes, we just need to be playmakers, and we need to allow our playmakers — which are our receivers, our tight ends — to sometimes go up and outfight a defender for a football. And we need to trust in that. I think we get caught up into being such a rhythm-type team, looking for the best outlet, looking for the open receiver, that we lose sight of just taking shots at times and just taking chances."
It's mystifying, really. The Bucs offense is 13th in the NFL, averaging more than 341 yards per game. But in red zone scoring, Tampa Bay is 29th in the league with only 11 touchdowns in 31 trips, a percentage of 35.5.
No matter how easily the Bucs breeze up and down the field, their trek inside the dead zone is like traversing a desert on a broken ankle over shards of glass.
Take last week's 13-9 loss at Dallas. Tampa Bay settled for three field goals, and the game ended when the Bucs failed to convert on fourth and 5 at the Cowboys 18.
Garcia didn't throw one pass to the end zone. Sometimes under duress, he checked the ball down to tight end Jerramy Stevens or wideout Ike Hilliard on shallow crossing routes. Despite having three timeouts when the drive started, the Bucs only attempted passes on their final 11 plays.
On the last play, receiver Joey Galloway put a double move on Cowboys cornerback Alan Ball, who slipped, leaving Galloway alone in the end zone. But Garcia never saw him, throwing incomplete to Stevens.
"Unfortunately, Jeff didn't have a chance to see it," Galloway said. "That's one of those things where half the play was really good and we didn't finish it, so it doesn't really matter.
"I've never been a guy that scored much inside the red zone. I've been a guy that scored outside the red zone. So, of course, with that in mind, I'd like to let coach know let's go from outside the red zone."
The Bucs' red zone production has been even worse during their three losses — all on the road. Tampa Bay has scored two touchdowns in nine trips, or 22 percent of the time.
One problem has been the Bucs' inability — or unwillingness — to run in the red zone. When the field gets shorter, it's much easier for defenses to stack the line of scrimmage.
"That's every red zone tape we look at," coach Jon Gruden said. "I think our first-down carries last week, we lost yards twice. And we got stopped on third down on one. And we do have a pretty good quarterback here, and we're going to try to accentuate anything we've got to do to win a football game. If we've got to throw it every snap, we will."
Injuries have been a factor. The Bucs lost fullback Byron Storer for the season when he tore his right ACL against the Panthers. Starter B.J. Askew hasn't played since tearing his hamstring in Week 3 at Chicago. Last week, Warrick Dunn was limited because of a pinched nerve in his back.
"We had fresh, good players, and we had a neat little rotation going," Gruden said of the rushing attack earlier this season. "Obviously, with Warrick's injury lingering and two fullbacks out, it's something we've got to all clean up. We've got to fight through this, we've got to do some things better, and that we will."
Garcia says the Bucs have good red zone practices each Friday, but so far, they haven't been able to carry over into games.
"I don't know why it's not carrying over," Garcia said. "You look at the situations we had this past game. We unfortunately on third and 1 don't convert a third down. We see a defense we didn't prepare for. Should that matter? It shouldn't matter. We should find a way. We didn't make it happen. The next time we're down in the red zone, I get the penalty for crossing the line of scrimmage. We get into a third-and-long situation. We become our own worst enemy when we get down to the red zone."
Gruden spent the week admitting his play-calling in red zone situations could have been better. But Garcia bears a little of the blame, too. Sometimes, he says, a quarterback has to squeeze a throw and hope for the best.
"I didn't do a very good job, and we didn't play well enough as a team," Gruden said. "We've all got to throw our hat in there and assume some responsibility, but I've got a lot of confidence in Jeff. Hopefully we can all get clicking again."
Garcia said his training in the West Coast offense taught him to think touchdown, then check down, whenever his team gets in the red zone. Coaches such as the late Bill Walsh and the Seahawks' Mike Holmgren have been notorious for trying to strike as soon as they reach the opponent's 20-yard line.
"I think somehow, some way, we need to find a way to be back in that sort of mode," Garcia said. "I think with how we've played recently in the red zone, we've missed out on a lot of great opportunities.
"And when you're in those last two minutes, it is important to take some shots to the end zone."