TAMPA — The last trip to Big D for the Bucs stood for Disaster.
Playing for the first time ever on Thanksgiving Day two years ago, the Bucs watched QB Tony Romo throw five touchdowns in a 38-10 rout before a national television audience, a game that served as a low point in Jon Gruden's career as a coach.
Just consider how far the franchise has come since then. Bruce Gradkowski, who started as a rookie quarterback for the Bucs that day, is out of the NFL. Dan Buenning, traded to Chicago this year, was the prized rookie offensive lineman who suffered a torn right ACL in the game.
In what will be their final game at Texas Stadium, the Bucs enter with a 5-2 record tied atop the NFC South standings with the Panthers and hope to defend their division title. And with one more victory, Gruden will surpass Tony Dungy as the winningest coach in franchise history.
Romo will miss today's game with a fractured pinkie finger on his right (throwing) hand. He will be replaced by former Bucs QB Brad Johnson, 40, who struggled in his first relief appearance last week, throwing three interceptions.
Still, there is something about playing against the Cowboys in Dallas, in that stadium with the hole in the roof, that still excites even veteran players.
"When you look at Dallas, the first thing you think about is America's Team," RB Warrick Dunn said. "All the great players, Tom Landry — the list goes on and on and on of great coaches and players. But to have an opportunity to play there, with the history they have, you always want to play well. … I like playing at Texas Stadium. The crowd is always into it, and there's always something at stake when you play the Cowboys."
And it will be a special return for WR Antonio Bryant, a former second-round pick of the Cowboys who fell out of favor with then-coach Bill Parcells.
"This is a team that has 13 or 14 Pro Bowlers," said Bryant, coming off a 115-yard performance against the Seahawks. "You can't really go in there and look at this team and say, 'They're down. This is the best time to get them.' You don't know. This is a successful team. … This is a great organization, and they pride themselves on being a signature type team. They're going to play big-time football. That's the best part about it. We get to go under their tent of exposure and get some exposure of our own."
Easy sledding: The Bucs have entered a stretch where they are catching teams at the right time. And they are taking advantage of bad quarterback situations.
Last week, the Bucs blasted the Seahawks, who missed starting QB Matt Hasselbeck. Today, they get the Cowboys without Romo. Next week, the Bucs could face obscure second-year QB Tyler Thigpen in Kansas City. After a bye week, the Bucs get Vikings veteran QB Gus Frerotte then Lions QB Dan Orlovsky. Who? Exactly.
Tale of two wideouts: Gruden has never had much tolerance for players' pain. But you have to wonder what he thinks of Joey Galloway, who has missed five games with a right foot sprain.
Galloway has had a terrific career in Tampa Bay, where he has had three 1,000-yard seasons. But he has been replaced at split end by Bryant, who has played with knee and foot injuries while not missing a game.
"He's not playing healthy, either; he's hurt," Gruden said of Bryant. "He's fighting through that. He never misses a practice. I've coached a lot of guys, and talent-wise, he's right up there with all those guys. He can run and catch and hit. He has great hands. I like him."