Joe Henderson Columns
Bucs in for rough stretch starting today
SAN FRANCISCO - Certainly no one can quibble with where the Buccaneers stand this morning. At the quarter-pole of the NFL season, they are 3-1 – three wins in a row, actually – and tied for first in their division. One of those wins came over the Atlanta Falcons, and that's always a good thing. Well done. But things are about to get even more interesting for the men of pewter. Starting with today's game at the San Francisco 49ers, they embark upon a portion of the schedule that appears to be drawn up in a mad scientist's lab while lightning flashed outside and thunder cracked.They were dispatched to the other side of the country for today's game with a short week of preparation after Monday night's win against Indianapolis. After that, it's home to face New Orleans in a game for large stakes, then a trip to London to meet the Chicago Bears, then back to New Orleans after a bye week. The combined record of those teams is 8-4. The Bucs will be flying 14,552 miles in this second quarter of the season, stretching their bodies across eight time zones so, yeah, today begins an especially challenging stretch. "We don't care; we love the challenge," head coach Raheem Morris said. "Let's go to the west coast after a Monday night." We know the Bucs have been known to struggle out west, but since most of the players on this roster were in pre-school, at best, when much of that history was written, it's probably not worth mining too deeply there for trends. Besides, despite losing 11 of 13 games lifetime at Candlestick Park, the Bucs had a jolly ol' time there last year, winning 23-0. It's even risky reading anything into that result, though, because these 49ers are much improved. Under new coach Jim Harbaugh, they are 3-1 and are coming off a win at Philadelphia, where the much-maligned quarterback Alex Smith had a 154.3 rating in the second half of that game. That's the highest second-half QB rating in the NFL this season. "It is what it is. We've got the Saints coming in here two times, almost back-to-back games like a doubleheader in baseball," Morris said. "We've got to figure out a way to beat the San Francisco 49ers, move on to the second quarter, and find a way to keep success going, keep the town high, and keep everybody pumped up. "The only way you do that is go out there and execute, trust in your preparation, and do the things we've been doing – play fast, play hard, play smart, and play together." That brings us back to Monday's 24-17 win against the Colts. Even Morris initially called it an "ugly" win and many of his players agreed. Aesthetics aside, though, it was a positive checkmark in the "W" column against a team the Bucs simply had to beat, given the challenges immediately ahead. "That's just the NFL. Most teams win ugly. There are very few blowouts, very few glamorous wins. The way this league goes, you're going to have tight games more often than not," quarterback Josh Freeman said. "I feel like we're built to get in those situations and find a way to pull it out in the end." That theory is about to be put to its toughest test yet, since this next stretch of games could define the Bucs as playoff caliber or pretenders. For what it's worth, the next quarter isn't a backyard picnic either, what with Houston and trips to Green Bay and Tennessee lined up in a row. First things first, though. "Our coaches and the guys upstairs always put us in position where we prepare well so we can rest our bodies and get in the film room," defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said. "It's going to be more of a mental challenge this week than physical, to be mentally drained from all the hoopla of Monday night. Then you've got to go on a six-hour flight over to the west coast. They're putting us in a situation where we can be prepared for that." The franchise is 10-6-1 overall following Monday night games (I'm not counting 2001, when they beat Baltimore in what was billed a "Monday Night" game but was played on Saturday because Monday fell on New Year's Eve; too confusing?) In that case, here's some clarity. "The challenge is that it's a short week. We don't have the same mental and film work that we have in a normal week. We just have to build off the last game and use that to build for this game," receiver Mike Williams said. "It's one game at a time. Right now, it's all on San Fran. Then the next game is the next game. Right now, the most important game to us is San Fran. We're just waiting for whatever we get. We're just taking on challenges."