1. Bucs

Bucs-Falcons: A wounded, wobbly Tampa Bay fought back before falling

Atlanta Falcons running back Devonta Freeman (24) escapes a tackle from Bucs safety Chris Conte (23) during the fourth quarter. [MONICA HERNDON | Times]
Published Dec. 18, 2017

TAMPA — As homecomings go, Jon Gruden's did not disappoint. At halftime, the Super Bowl-winning coach of the Bucs walked out of the ESPN broadcast booth and into the team's Ring of Honor.

He even called a play, a re-enactment of the Mike Alstott's 2-yard run for the first touchdown in the Bucs' win over the Raiders in Super Bowl XXXVII.

"I know you had to deal with me and that was tough,'' Gruden said to the world champion players who stood behind him during the ceremony. "It was tough dealing with you guys, too. I miss you.''

Then the balloons popped, the beer went flat and the band of brothers went home.

What was left when the Bucs' past passed the present in the tunnel at Raymond James Stadium was an embattled team and wobbly head coach that already trailed by two scores by halftime, fought back but wound up losing 24-21 to the Atlanta Falcons.

Bucs kicker Patrick Murray missed a game-tying 54-yard field goal attempt wide right as time expired.

How much Gruden misses coaching may be known to the world in a few weeks if the Bucs owners who beamed at halftime are bummed enough about this season to make a change from coach Dirk Koetter. At 4-10, this Tampa Bay team is one of the biggest disappointments in the NFL.

Even before kickoff Monday night, the Bucs presented some sobering news. Running back Doug Martin added to a horrific season by being placed on the inactive list for what was termed a "violation of team rules.''

Of course, the biggest attraction for Gruden or anyone else to the Bucs job is Winston, the 23-year-old quarterback who played well Monday night. He completed 16 of his first 18 passes. His third touchdown pass Monday, a 16-yarder Adam Humphries, left the Bucs trailing 24-21 with 4:07 to play.

Winston finished 27 of 35 for 299 yards and three touchdowns.

The difference in the first half was simple: Falcons running back Devonta Freeman fumbled at the goal line and it was recovered in the end zone by tight end Levine Toilolo for a touchdown. Peyton Barber fumbled at the Atlanta 5-yard and the Falcons recovered.

Freeman, who did not play when the teams met three weeks ago, led the Falcons by rushing for 126 yards, including a 32-yard touchdown run with 7:58 remaining in the fourth quarter that virtually put the game away.

All week long, Koetter had to endure speculation that Gruden was considering a return to the sidelines and that he might want his old job back.

The divorce after the 2008 season hurt both the Bucs and Gruden. Tampa Bay has undergone a 10-year playoff drought while the Glazer family has sought to replace him with Raheem Morris, Greg Schiano, Lovie Smith and Koetter. Gruden has forged a career as one of the highest-paid NFL analysts on television at $6.5-million per year. But at 54, he's never ruled out coaching again.

Injuries have been the story of 2017 and that theme continued Monday. The Bucs already were missing their two best defenders: Gerald McCoy and Lavonte David.

By the middle of the third quarter, they had lost tight ends O.J. Howard (ankle), who scored the Bucs' first TD, and Cameron Brate (knee), guard J.R. Sweezy (lower leg), Adarius Glanton (leg injury), safety Justin Evans (ankle) and defensive end Robert Ayers (stinger). Only Brate returned to finish the game.

No sooner had Gruden returned to his current job as the star of Monday Night Football than Mike Evans, who had two long gains erased on offensive pass interference penalties, leaped high over Falcons defensive backs Desmond Trufant and Ricardo Allen to haul in a 42-yard touchdown pass to cut the lead to 17-14.

The Falcons, as they have done all season, had trouble putting the game away. Will Gholston blocked Matt Bryant's 33-yard field goal attempt with 1:16 remaining in the third quarter.

The game went back with forth. Freeman ran for a touchdown. Humphries hauled in a TD from Winston. Clinton McDonald sacked quarterback Matt Ryan to give the Bucs one more chance.

Winston drove the Bucs to within Murray's range. His longest career field goal was 55 yards. The kick was long enough but wide right.

Contact Rick Stroud at Follow @NFLStroud

Sign up for our daily Bucs Red Zone email newsletter here


  1. Ronde Barber returns an interception for a touchdown that clinched the Bucs' 27-10 win over Philadelphia in the 2002 NFC Championship game. The play sent the Bucs to Super Bowl 37 in San Diego. JASON BEHNKEN  |  Tampa Bay Times
    Bucs Ring of Honor ceremony 2019: Ronde Barber always had an edge — real or imagined — and it made the Buccaneers defensive back one of the greatest of all time.
  2. In this Sept. 15 file photo, New England Patriots wide receiver Antonio Brown (17) on the sidelines,during the first half against the Miami Dolphins. The Patriots released Brown on Friday. LYNNE SLADKY  |  AP
    New England had signed Brown this month hours after he was released by Oakland.
  3. New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley (26) breaks away for a touchdown during the first half of an NFL football game against the Buffalo Bills, Sunday, Sept. 15, 2019, in East Rutherford, N.J. (AP Photo/Adam Hunger) ADAM HUNGER  |  AP
    Coaching staff presents Bucs a Saquon highlight reel in an effort to prevent a sequel from the running back.
  4. Running back Peyton Barber has 31 carries this season, the 11th most over the first two weeks of the NFL season. Is that what's best for the Bucs offense? MONICA HERNDON  |  Times
    In this preview: Why the Giants would have been better off the past four seasons with Jameis Winston instead of Eli Manning. Plus, how the G-Men will attack the Bucs defense and why you should keep an...
  5. It's early, but Jameis Winston (3) and the Bucs defense has Tampa Bay in first place in the NFC South. (AP Photo/Brian Blanco) BRIAN BLANCO  |  AP
    Martin Fennelly: That 1-1 start feels a little ragged, but things are breaking right so far for the Bucs.
  6. Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker Devin White (45) takes the field for warm ups before the Tampa Bay Buccaneers game against the San Francisco 49ers at Raymond James Stadium on September 8, 2019 in Tampa, Florida.  MONICA HERNDON  |  Times
    Rookie inside linebacker didn’t practice all week.
  7. Bucs running back Peyton Barber will be key in helping Tampa Bay elevate its struggling defense. MIKE MCCARN  |  AP
    New York enters with quarterback Daniel Jones starting his first NFL game
  8. Tim Tebow. [Associated Press)] Associated Press
    Sports Day Tampa Bay podcast: Tom Jones and Rick Stroud debate Tebow, Dickie V, the first-place Bucs and the Rays playoff chase
  9. Paul Spicer, left, is now a defensive line coach at the University of South Florida. Skyler Fulton, right, is now a wide receivers coach at Portland State University. University of South Florida | Portland State University
    Former Bucs assistants Paul Spicer and Skyler Fulton faced accusations of violence against women before coaching in Tampa Bay under Dirk Koetter, according to a USA Today investigation.
  10. Kevin Minter played linebacker for Todd Bowles in Arizona, was released by Bowles last year when Bowles coached the Jets and is starting Sunday for the Bucs' defensive coordinator when Tampa Bay plays host to the New York Giants. DIRK SHADD  |  Tampa Bay Times
    When rookie linebacker Devin White went down, the Bucs turned to a player who keeps showing up in Todd Bowles’ defenses.