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Bucs say motivation still there to play spoiler

Josh McCown
Josh McCown
Published Dec. 14, 2014

TAMPA — Josh McCown has played the role of spoiler, turning another team's season as sour as month-old milk.

On the final regular-season game of 2003 against the Vikings, McCown's Arizona Cardinals faced fourth and 25 when he was flushed from the pocket and heaved a desperation pass to Nate Poole in the end zone as time expired.

Poole caught the ball and was ruled forced out by Denard Walker and Brian Russell and awarded a touchdown, knocking the Vikings out of the playoffs and giving the Packers the NFC North title.

"Green Bay was happy. They sent me a bunch of cheese. I'm serious," McCown said. "The Sargento family sent us cheese and we got everybody's Christmas cards from that year marked 'Thank you, Josh.' It was hilarious. It was fun. You would've thought we won the NFC championship. We were thrilled with the way we competed and fought in that game."

Despite being 2-11 and eliminated from playoff contention, even in the astonishingly bad NFC South, the Bucs have a lot to play for in the final three games.

The results against the Panthers, Packers and Saints also will go a long way in deciding division races and perhaps homefield advantage in the NFC.

Just as important, it will determine whether the Bucs hang on to what they currently own: the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft.

The top prize in the draft is expected to be a franchise quarterback — either Oregon's Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota or Florida State's Jameis Winston, last year's Heisman winner.

Of course, while coach Lovie Smith and his players are aware of the value of such a pick, they really can't do anything about it. The job of players and coaches in the NFL is to win at any cost — even at the expense of a path-altering draft choice.

"How can I tell them anything else?' Smith said. " 'Head football coach: Winning isn't important.' You have to start with that, period. That's the end of the story. If you compete, how could you go and not try to win? It's as simple as that.

"I'm not saying we don't want the first (pick). We're down here in the gutter. I understand that. We'd like to have the first pick. We'd like to win and have the first pick. Since we're down here, we're going to get a good player. There are a few good players down here. But you can't do that. We have to let it play out."

So what motivations are at work the final three weeks for the Bucs?

Building momentum for 2015: For all intents and purposes, 2014 is over. You don't need Ryan Seacrest and a ball dropping in Times Square to tell you that.

While there is bound to be change, a strong finish can create positive energy for the offseason. The Bucs in 1996 started 1-8 and won five of their last eight. The next season they went 10-6 and made the playoffs.

"You're always playing to get in the playoffs, so, if you're not — and now we're out of 2014, so it's 2015 — you're trying to build momentum for that (next) season," McCown said. "These games will be important for us, and all these teams that we're playing are playoff teams that want to win these games. And we want to win these games because we're competitors and, like I said, from day one, you want to win every game that's in front of you.

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"Even though you're not in it, you still feel the playoff intensity from those guys. These reps of playing against a team that's doing that will serve us well down the road."

Evaluating talent: Any player can get hyped about playing in meaningful games in December. But what happens when your season is circling the drain, when you know there will be changes and your biggest concern becomes avoiding injury?

The true measure of a player might be how he performs once the lure of the postseason has been removed.

"We'll get to find out a lot about each other in these next three weeks," defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said. "Take Cam (Newton) for instance. He didn't know he was going to get into a car wreck, but he got in a car wreck and now he's not playing. You have to see this game as a privilege and take every opportunity you can to go out and perform and be at your best, that's how you look at 2-11. When you're faced with adversity, how do you deal with it?"

Ron Rivera went 6-10 and 7-9 in his first two seasons as coach of the Panthers, as Newton broke into the league. Last season, they won the NFC South with a 12-4 mark.

"We went through it my first two seasons that this carrot was removed," Rivera said. "But believe me, knowing Coach Smith and how it works for him, he's going to expect these guys to come out and play because it's all about what you're doing going forward."

Being a spoiler is fun: As McCown knows, knocking a team out of the playoffs can be rewarding. But rarely is that the pregame speech. For example, the Cardinals' coach at the time, Dave McGinnis, was fired despite the win after a 4-12 season.

"Some guys find that as motivation: 'Hey, let's go ruin their season,' " McCown said. "It's not really the mantra that we're saying right now. … It's just about, 'Let's just continue to improve and get better.' "

Contact Rick Stroud at rstroud@tampabay.com and listen from 6 to 9 a.m. weekdays on WDAE-AM 620. View his blog at tampabay.com/blogs/bucs.

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