The Tampa Bay Buccaneers fell to the New York Giants this afternoon, 24-14. Ahmad Bradshaw and Eli Manning were the stars for the New Yorkers, while Jeff Garcia struggled and the Buccaneers never really got going offensively.
Troy Aikman and Joe Buck, the always-ruminant Fox commentators, suggested that the game's outcome was due to two factors: first, that the Buccaneers' offense was "rusty" after it rested many of its starters for the final two games of the season; second, that Eli Manning was having a terrific game and finally "maturing as a quarterback".
Both of these factors were non-factors. The Buccaneers lost (and I approach the game from the perspective of a Central Florida resident) because they got away from their offensive and defensive gameplans.
When the Bucs have won this year, their offense has been simple: run Earnest Graham up the middle, and pass just enough to keep the defense from completely keying on him. They began the game sticking to this plan: in the Buccaneers' first two offensive series, Graham had 8 rushes for 33 yards and a touchdown - but he had only 10 carries for 30 yards the rest of the game. Not coincidentally, the Bucs didn't score again until the fourth quarter.
Why the change? Jon Gruden panicked after the Giants scored their first touchdown. After the screen pass touchdown to Brandon Jacobs tied the game, 11 of the Bucs' next 12 plays were called passes. This meant that the Bucs offense wasn't on the field for as long - so the Bucs defense, come the fourth quarter, was exhausted.
Defensively, the Buccaneers came into the game vowing to stop the run. In the first quarter, they did so in dominant fashion: New York had -2 total yards and 0 points, as Tampa Bay blitzed relentlessly, never giving Brandon Jacobs a chance to get started. There was also a side effect to the blitzing: whenever Eli Manning dropped back to pass, there were Buc defenders in his face.
After the first quarter, though, Tampa seemed to think that it had already won the game - the Bucs defense began routinely dropping seven men into coverage. While this was hardly an unusual tactic for a Monte Kiffin defense to take, it marked a departure from the defensive tactics that had worked so well in the first quarter. Eli suddenly found himself with time to read the defense, and given that the Giants have skilled, veteran receivers - especially Amani Toomer, who had 7 catches for 74 yards and a touchdown - he was able to complete passes and move the Giants downfield.
So: Brilliant running by Ahmad Bradshaw? Unexpected maturation of Eli Manning? Sure, maybe, to some extent. But the bigger story was the Buccaneers getting away from the gameplans that had them ahead by a touchdown at the end of the first quarter.