By Leonard Shapiro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 4, 2006
TAMPA, Jan. 3 -- It was a controversial play, made by one of the most popular players in franchise history, that helped transform the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' season. The two-point conversion run by fullback Mike Alstott with 58 seconds remaining against the Washington Redskins on Nov. 13 gave the Bucs a 36-35 victory and prevented a third straight loss and potential tailspin.
Instead, Tampa Bay won six of its last eight games and the NFC South Division title. The play also had the potential to be a watershed event for the Redskins, because it led to the first of three straight losses and a 5-6 record until Washington pounded its way out of the doldrums and into the playoffs by winning its last five games.
The teams will meet again Saturday at Raymond James Stadium in a first-round playoff game and that two-point run in one of the most dramatic games of the season still remains a lively topic of conversation -- even for the Bucs.
Tampa Bay had initially attempted an extra point that would have tied the game and likely forced overtime. The Redskins blocked the kick, but were called for jumping offside, pushing the ball to within a yard of the goal line. At that point, Tampa Bay Coach Jon Gruden decided to put the game, and likely his team's season, in Alstott's hands.
"It was the logical thing to do," Gruden said this week. "The ball wasn't at the 2-yard line, it was at the 1. And we had had previous success at the goal line [that day, with two previous short Alstott touchdown runs]. Quite frankly, the Redskins had been moving the ball on us. Fortunately, for us, it all worked out."
It worked out badly for the Redskins, who remain convinced that Alstott was stopped short of the goal line. But game officials ruled that the ball had crossed the plane of the goal line and signaled a touchdown. The play was reviewed, and because there was no evidence available on instant replay to indicate the call should have been reversed, the winning points went up on the board and stayed there.
Asked about the play after practice on Tuesday, Alstott scowled and said, "It's over, let it go, there's another game to play," and declined further elaboration.
But rookie Dan Buenning, the starting left guard, said: "He was definitely in, no question it was a touchdown. I was right there in front of him. He landed on top of me and we were both in the end zone. I'm the guy who was blocking the camera angle. He scored. I saw it."
Still, seconds before the play, at least one skeptic spoke very vocally to the national television audience about Gruden's decision.
"I don't agree with this call," Fox analyst Troy Aikman, the former Dallas Cowboys quarterback, said on the broadcast. "I don't agree with this call and only because there's still time on the clock. And with Washington with two timeouts, they still have time to move the football down for a field goal. . . . Boy, this is risky."
"I don't know if it's a no-brainer," Gruden said this week of his decision to go for the two points. "I've never done that before, and you don't see it done very often where a team goes for it. Who knows [if the Bucs hadn't made the two-point play]? There are so many coaching changes these days, there's a chance there could have been a change here, too.
"All you can do is what you feel is right at the time, do your homework and make the call. . . . You can't worry about instinct. . . . You have to live with the calls you make and if your heart is in it, at least you feel good about it at the end of the night, no matter what happens."
Alstott felt the best of all the Bucs that day. He had only 11 carries in the first eight games, but Gruden and his staff had decided in game-planning to get him the ball any time the team was in short-yardage situations against Washington. There likely will be more of the same Saturday.
"I feel good, I feel healthy, I feel like the old player I was," Alstott said Tuesday. "The best thing is that as a team we feel like we're back, too, going 11-5 and now being in the playoff, the Super Bowl hunt. . . . We're excited here."
Alstott had rewarded his coach's confidence in him in the teams' first game when he scored on over-the-top runs of one and two yards before the conversion run. He still describes that two-point run -- burrowing down low to plow off-tackle -- as the second-greatest moment of his 10-year career with the Bucs, topped only by winning the Super Bowl on Jan. 26, 2003.
Alstott, 32, has received more playing time since the Redskins game. Earlier in the year, when he was not playing quite as much, Gruden was constantly hearing calls from the stands to get the 6-foot-1, 248-pound running back known as the "A-Train" into the game, and then to get him the football.
Alstott long ago resigned himself to knowing he will never be the featured back in any offense, even though he admitted Tuesday: "I'm competitive, just like any other athlete. I'd like to carry the ball every time, but it's a team game and I know my role. There's no one selfish on this team."
Alstott has been to the Pro Bowl six times, even though he never has rushed for more than 1,000 yards in any season since being drafted in the second round from Purdue in 1996. In fact, he has run for 100 yards in only seven games his entire career. But get him close to the goal line, and along with the Steelers' Jerome Bettis, he may be the toughest short-yardage back in the league.
In the Tampa area, he has become an iconic figure, active in the community. Other players describe him as the perfect teammate, and point out that even when he was being used sparingly, he didn't complain.
The gaudiest statistic on his rsum is 68, the franchise-record number of touchdowns he has scored, including six rushing scores this season, tied for the team lead with rookie running back Carnell "Cadillac" Williams, who also was the beneficiary of more than an occasional block by Alstott. He also is dangerous catching passes out of the backfield, with 25 receptions, one for a touchdown, this season. But his body-battering carries, with potential tacklers bouncing away in his wake, have truly set him apart.
"Some of those runs you will never forget," Gruden said recently. "And you may never see them again. Those are the ones where you say, 'Oh, my God, oh, my God!' They are runs etched in your mind forever."
For Alstott these days, every game, every carry is etched in his memory because he knows the end of his career is in sight. In 2003, he suffered a season-ending neck injury in the fourth game that required surgery, and in 2004, he missed two games with a knee injury and had only 67 carries for the season. He has been healthy this year, but came into 2005 saying it could be his last. He has said many times that no matter what, he will not try to hang on and play for another franchise.
Asked about possibly playing his final home game here on Saturday, Alstott said he has made no decisions on retirement, and won't until after the season.
"You always soak these moments in," he said. "I realized it after I was hurt in '03. Any time you walk out of that tunnel on to the field, you never know if you'll put the helmet and the uniform on and play again. I still walk out of the tunnel very proud and very excited to have a chance to be playing.
"I spoke to the team when I was hurt about not taking it for granted because you never know if it's your last time. Could it be the last game, the last play? Nobody knows how long you're going to play. You just have to be ready and you have to have fun. Right now, I'm having a good time."