Manning doubts have been answered

Updated: October 8, 2003, 10:02 AM ET
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

TAMPA, Fla. -- Too bad that such an all-time classic Monday night game culminated with such clamor, as referee Johnny Grier and his typically flag-happy officiating crew found themselves in the midst of a maelstrom, with players from both franchises openly questioning the manner in which the contest was administrated.

On a happier note, after the Indianapolis Colts' incredible 38-35 comeback victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, at least one controversy can be laid to rest.

Colts kicker Mike Vanderjagt, who caromed home the game-winning 29-yard field goal off the right upright with 3:47 remaining in overtime, isn't likely to suggest anymore that quarterback Peyton Manning can't win the big games. Even if he still harbors any such misguided delusions, Vanderjagt won't ever articulate them publicly, as he did during a moment of offseason lunacy.

At the same time, Manning probably won't refer to Vanderjagt as a "liquored up" Canadian again, although both players likely hoisted a toast or two to Indianapolis head coach Tony Dungy on what must certainly have been a raucous charter flight home.

It was not only a homecoming for Dungy, the Bucs' head coach for six seasons until he was jettisoned by ownership after the 2001 campaign, but also his 48th birthday. And rest assured, it will take an occurrence of epic proportions on any of Dungy's future natal days to top what transpired Monday night, when the Colts rallied for 35 points in the second half to send the week's marquee matchup into an extra stanza.

Definition of leaping
Rule 12, Section 3, Article 2 of the 2003 Official Playing Rules of the National Football League (page 86) defines the unsportsmanlike conduct/leaping penalty as follows: "Clearly running forward and leaping in an obvious attempt to block a field goal, or try-kick after touchdown and landing on players, unless the leaping player was originally lined up within one yard of the line of scrimmage when the ball was snapped."
While the haughty-then-humbled Buccaneers were left in a flag daze and bewildered by an esoteric "leaping" penalty against defensive end Simeon Rice -- an 11-yard, half-the-distance infraction that provided Vanderjagt a second shot at the game winner, after he had pushed a 40-yard try wide right -- the undefeated Colts were arguably as high as they have ever been.

"Does it get any better than this?" said Colts wide receiver Marvin Harrison, who caught 11 passes for 176 yards and two touchdowns to help drive the frenetic and improbable comeback. "I suppose, if you win the Super Bowl, that's got to be better. But, man, to be down like we were and come back against the Super Bowl champions and that defense? You can't even dream that kind of stuff, you know?"

For the typically trash-talking Bucs players, whose mettle didn't live up to their mouths, the nightmarish loss almost certainly will linger. The defeat dropped the Bucs two games behind the upstart Carolina Panthers, who already own an overtime win at Tampa Bay, in the NFC South. Four games into the season, Tampa Bay is a dented 2-2 team, and winless at Raymond James Stadium.

Several of the Bucs players, using their alleged distaste for the "Playmakers" series and their disdain for Rush Limbaugh's remarks as a lame excuse, have opted not to speak to ESPN and ESPN.com. That was appropriate Monday, since most rationalizations they uttered in group interviews were outlandish anyway and, come crunch time, the Bucs couldn't find even one playmaker to stop the hemorrhaging on their vaunted defensive unit.

In defense of Tampa Bay and its calamitous collapse, coach Jon Gruden's team finished the bitter contest with several star players sidelined by injuries. Among the wounded were cornerback Brian Kelly, wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson and tailbacks Michael Pittman and Aaron Stecker.

Injuries notwithstanding, the Bucs can't simply excuse away a defeat of such mammoth proportions, one in which they led by three touchdowns with less than four minutes to play.

"We can talk about [the officiating], the injuries, whatever," Bucs strong safety John Lynch said. "I don't care what happens. You can't lose that game. You just can't allow a game like this one to get away from you."

But in truth, the Colts, whose 5-0 record marks the team's best start since 1977, when the franchise was located in Baltimore and coached by Ted Marchibroda (now a co-host on the club's pregame show), took the game away from the Bucs in scintillating fashion.

Years from now, when the game is recalled by Colts fans or replayed on ESPN Classic, some of the memorable plays will include a 90-yard kickoff return by Brad Pyatt, the recovered onside kick by safety Idrees Bashir, or Manning's 52-yard frozen rope to Harrison to set up Ricky Williams' game-tying touchdown run.

What should be noted, however, is the manner in which the Colts went after a Tampa Bay defense that is famous for its intimidation tactics.

At halftime, one Tampa Bay team official agreed when a reporter suggested the Colts had fallen into the Bucs' trap, afraid to throw the ball deep and instead relying on too many short passes into the flats. The Bucs thrive in such situations because they pursue so well to the ball and always keep it in front of them. But what opposition offenses do not seem to recognize is that the Bucs don't play as much "cover two" scheme as they did in the past and that there are some vertical opportunities available.

In the second half, Manning, whose 11 completions in the first two quarters added up to a piddling 66 yards and who didn't have a hookup with a receiver for more than 15, began to take advantage of those opportunities. His first scoring strike to a clever Harrison, who beat the Tampa Bay secondary up the seam with a nifty double move, appeared at the time to be just a blip on the radar screen.

But it lit a fire under the Indianapolis offense and, in a sense, validated the notion that the Colts could indeed throw the ball in the "seam" and deep "hook" routes with success.

"We just didn't play our game," Manning said of the first half. "We're not a dink and dunk team, really, and we got ourselves in a rut. Sometimes, when you've got nothing to lose, you decide to leave nothing in the [play] book. We got back to being us. And when we hit a few big plays, you could see guys started to believe, to actually think that we had a chance to pull this thing out."

Pulling virtually everything out of the bag, in a half that should validate him as one of the game's premier performers and perhaps expunge all those suggestions that Indianapolis is a soft team, Manning completed 23 of 32 passes for 320 yards in the second half and the overtime period. More significant, he averaged 13.9 yards per completion, a sign that he was gunning the ball deeper.

In the second half, Colts receivers had catches of 28, 31, 37 and 52 yards. Three of those were authored by Harrison, who was chided by Keyshawn Johnson during the contest. As the player "miked" for sound on Monday night, Johnson was heard making disparaging remarks about Harrison when the Colts star was just catching balls underneath the Bucs' zone defenses. Johnson was notably quiet on the microphone, though, during the Colts' stirring comeback.

Part of the problem for Tampa Bay was that, with Brian Kelly out of the game, defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin was forced to use undersized "nickel" defender Tim Wansley at cornerback in the "base" defense. Harrison absolutely abused Wansley, finally forcing the Bucs to move free safety Dwight Smith, a cornerback the first two years of his career, to the outside. In that alignment, Jermaine Phillips played free safety. It was a disheveled secondary at times, and the Colts went helter-skelter right through it.

In the first three games, the Tampa Bay defense limited opponents to just 16.8 yards per possession, and 28 of 38 series for enemy offenses ended in zero or just one first down. The Colts averaged 35 yards on their 13 series, still not great, but enough to make the Bucs' seemingly indomitable unit appear vulnerable.

There were plenty of gaffes and low moments in the contest -- like when Bucs wideout Keenan McCardell scored on a 57-yard fumble return after Colts rookie strong safety Mike Doss lost the handle on an interception return -- but in the end what will be recalled most was the high drama of the closing five minutes of regulation play.

Indianapolis got the ball back in some unthinkable and unorthodox ways, and Tampa Bay aided the cause with untimely penalties that stopped the clock, including a 15-yarder on offensive tackle Kenyatta Walker on the Bucs' last possession of the fourth quarter. But when push came to shove, as it often did at the line of scrimmage, it was Manning who most embodied what this year's Colts might be about.

There have been times in the past when, faced with more promising situations and far less challenging defenses, Manning has not led the Colts into the end zone. On Monday, he did it time and again under the most stressful of situations, and then he moved the team into range for Vanderjagt's winning kick.

For the Colts, who now lead rival Tennessee by two games, it may be a truly defining moment. There is little doubt it will be a comeback that silences some of those poor and misguided Manning critics. For Dungy, the last coach or player with a chance to grab a victory in what the league dubbed as "Reunion Weekend," it was just about the greatest birthday present he could have imagined.

And, as Dungy noted, even he didn't imagine it when his team trailed by three scores and the clock had moved under four minutes.

"Good things happen, though, when you keep trying," Dungy said. "Strange things, too, I guess. But when we got backed into the corner, we got aggressive, and we just made up our minds we were tired of being [embarrassed]."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.