|Backup quarterback Matt Cassel got into the action early, and directed a touchdown drive in the second quarter. (SCOTT AUDETTE/ASSOCIATED PRESS)|
Stars make cameos as Buccaneers knock off Patriots
TAMPA -- Reche Caldwell, who corralled 28 tickets for friends and family to see his NFL homecoming, said it best: "It was a start." That was about all you could say about the Patriots' exhibition opener.
Football fanatics across New England turned on their TVs last night to get a first glimpse of the juggernaut the Patriots built with their Saks Fifth Avenue spending spree. Instead, they were treated to
New England lost, 13-10, to the Buccaneers in front of 65,130 at Raymond James Stadium. Let the record show that the Patriots' presumed predestined run to the desert, a.k.a. Super Bowl XLII in Glendale, Ariz., began the same way last season's run did -- with a loss on a last-second field goal. Last year it came against Atlanta. This time, Tampa Bay's Matt Bryant drilled a 32-yarder as time expired.
"It's the first game; we have a long way to go. There are some good things and some things that weren't so good," said Patriots coach Bill Belichick.
Befitting an opponent of a team that has a skull-and-swords logo, the Patriots used a skeleton crew.
If you blinked you may have missed Tom Brady. He made a David Beckham-like cameo. The franchise quarterback took the helm for the first two series, completing 5 of 7 passes for 34 yards before he turned it over to understudy to the stars, Matt Cassel (4 of 7 for 32 yards). Cassel led New England's only touchdown drive, a 2-yard rush by Sammy Morris for a 7-0 lead with 12:56 left in the second quarter.
At least Brady played. The same could not be said for some of the offense's other marquee players.
The Patriots were without feature back Laurence Maroney, who still hasn't seen contact since the AFC Championship game. Randy Moss's reputation rehabilitation took a back seat to his recuperating left hamstring, keeping him at home. He was joined by fellow wide receiver Donte' Stallworth, who came off the physically-unable-to-perform list Monday and practiced all week, but was inactive.
"I'm looking forward to getting everybody back. We had a bunch of guys out," said Brady. "We'll see what we're made of when we're out there and see what we can produce. Hopefully it will turn out better than 0 for 2 drives like we did tonight."
The absence of Stallworth and Moss cleared the way for Kelley Washington. The forgotten free agent addition helped himself more than any other player. He had two catches for 23 yards, both on New England's touchdown drive, including a 12-yard reception on which he left Ronde Barber in his wake.
"I think all the receivers here bring something different," said Washington. "With those guys out we know that they're going to be talented players, but we just got to step up our play and put what we do in practice out into the game."
Maroney's absence allowed the Patriots to get a good look at Morris in the backfield. The former Miami Dolphin scored the first points, and despite being stuffed for a loss on his first carry finished with nine carries for 27 yards.
"I think that all the backs we have feel confident in our abilities and feel confident in helping our team out," said Morris.
Not that it mattered, but Tampa Bay led, 10-7, at the half. After Morris's TD, the Buccaneers responded on the ensuing possession with a 36-yard Bryant field goal against the Patriots' first-team defense. The Pewter Pirates were forced to settle for 3 points after Jarvis Green and Mike Wright recorded back-to-back sacks.
Tampa Bay tacked on a Luke McCown-to-Paris Warren 12-yard TD pass with 31 seconds left in the half against New England's second-team defense, which included rookie first-round pick Brandon Meriweather at left cornerback.
Ellis Hobbs and Randall Gay, who started at corner, did nothing to make the Patriots pine for Asante Samuel. Adalius Thomas, who played with the second defense in the second half to get more experience in the Patriots' 3-4 scheme, was solid but unspectacular.
The second half was filled with rookies and overzealous fringe players trying to prove they belong. Third-string quarterback Matt Gutierrez acquitted himself well. He was 6 of 10 for 66 yards and led the Patriots down the field to tie the game, 10-10, on Stephen Gostkowski's 23-yard field goal with 11:18 left. Gutierrez could have had more on the drive if he hadn't gotten tangled up taking the snap in a goal-to-go situation.
Affirmation of how meaningless these games can be is that the Patriots' leading receivers in last season's exhibition opener were Garrett Mills and Patrick Cobbs, neither of whom played a down during the regular season for New England.
For now the hype surrounding the 2007 Patriots still overshadows the real thing.
"It's one step. We have a long way to go. There are a lot of things we can learn from tonight," said Belichick.
Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at email@example.com.