Bucs unravel in Garcia's absence

SEATTLE -- Linebacker Lofa Tatupu was heading directly for Tampa Bay quarterback Jeff Garcia on a first-quarter Seattle blitz.

An inexperienced passer might have panicked.

Not Garcia. The 37-year-old veteran stared down the Seattle pass rush and fired a perfect strike to Ike Hilliard for a 28-yard gain.

In one play Sunday, Garcia showed the Bucs what they were missing from the position during their 4-12 season in 2006. Garcia showed them again with a 3-yard scramble on a third-and-2 play in the second half, but this time, he took a shot to the head from Seahawks linebacker LeRoy Hill.

Garcia was down. The Bucs' season was in jeopardy of going down with him.

Tampa Bay trailed by four points when Garcia left midway through the third quarter. The Bucs trailed by 14 when he returned midway through the fourth. The Seahawks won, 20-6.

The Bucs didn't need a refresher course on life without a viable quarterback, but they got one.

"Once he got out of the game, it became a lot easier for us because the play calls change on offense," Seattle linebacker Julian Peterson said. "We're like, 'Oh, yeah, this is easy. This is money in the bank right here.' "

Garcia passed a series of tests after the game, and the Bucs said he did not suffer a concussion. His eventual return to the game suggested the Bucs will have Garcia in the lineup against New Orleans next week at home. They're going to need him.

"I just got my bell rung," Garcia said. "It was a combination of getting hit, my head hitting the ground … it wasn't good."

Garcia said he was wobbly and disoriented. He tried to walk off the injury, but he needed time.

For the Bucs, the difference between Garcia and backup Luke McCown could be the difference between making a playoff run and preparing for another top-10 pick in the draft. It could be the difference between rediscovering success under coach Jon Gruden and hearing late-season whispers about a potential coaching search.

The Bucs must know this, even if they can't say it one game into the season.

"We've had a lot of injuries at the position," Gruden said, refusing to wallow despite repeated queries about what he was thinking when Garcia went down.

Gruden has lived through more quarterback nightmares than he cares to recount. He lost 2006 starter Chris Simms for the season after three games. Signing Garcia as a free agent in March meant the Bucs wouldn't have to suffer through another season with Bruce Gradkowski or another stopgap at the most important position.

"You just hope he's healthy and hope he's OK," Hilliard said. "In the same sense, you have to keep going. It was just good to see him come back."

The Bucs were 0-3 when they lost Simms last season. Sunday, they were threatening to upset the three-time defending NFC West champs in one of the NFL's loudest stadiums.

It wasn't going to happen without Garcia.

"I played with McCown in Cleveland, so I know he's a talented guy who can run and throw," Seattle safety Brian Russell said. "But the eyes are big [when he comes into the game], and you can see it."

McCown completed one of four passes (25 percent) for 9 yards. He took two sacks when a veteran quarterback might have gotten rid of the football. Garcia completed 19 of 27 passes (70 percent) for 201 yards and a 91.7 rating. He set the tone with a 49-yard strike to Joey Galloway less than four minutes into the game. The Bucs gained 193 of their 284 yards in the first half.

"[Garcia] made a great throw down the field to Galloway," Gruden said. "He made a couple of competitive scrambles. He did some good things."

The quick first-quarter strike to Hilliard came on one of the few Seattle blitzes. Garcia wasn't as sharp early in the third quarter. He came off reads early on third down, Gruden said, and the offense stalled. But the Seahawks didn't get their offense rolling until the Garcia left the game.

Unable to sustain drives, the Bucs left their defense on the field too long. Seattle's Shaun Alexander rushed for 60 of his 105 yards after Garcia's departure.

The Seahawks sensed the opportunity and took advantage.

"Losing your starting quarterback and losing your starting tailback, guys you are counting on to help you win the game in a 10-6 ballgame, is tough," Gruden said.

Getting Garcia back in Week 2 gives the Bucs hope. Gruden sounded as optimistic as circumstances would allow.

The Bucs think they can win with Garcia. The Seahawks would not disagree.

"Jeff brings toughness, leadership, just tenacity," said Peterson, who played with Garcia in San Francisco. "He led one of the greatest playoff comebacks of all time, and I was on that [49ers] team. Great guy. He'll make plays on the run and put some tough passes in there."

Not when he's on the sideline.

Mike Sando covers the NFL for ESPN.com.