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Flashback: Bruce Gradkowski's First Career NFL Win Is Well Remembered

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OAKLAND CA - SEPTEMBER 19:  Bruce Gradkowski #5 of the Oakland Raiders in action against the St. Louis Rams at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum on September 19 2010 in Oakland California.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
OAKLAND CA - SEPTEMBER 19: Bruce Gradkowski #5 of the Oakland Raiders in action against the St. Louis Rams at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum on September 19 2010 in Oakland California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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Following an embarrassing 38-13 loss to the New England Patriots on Monday Night Football, the Cincinnati Bengals had hoped an off-week and an easy 0-4 Tampa Bay Buccaneers squad would get their season back on track, rebuilding that confidence to become the first Bengals squad to make the playoffs in consecutive seasons dating back to the 1981-82 seasons (I was three years old.. but already hittin' on the chicks). The weather on October 15, 2006 was a comfortable 77 degrees with slight humidity and a few misplaced clouds hovering over Raymond James Stadium.

Frustration set-in almost immediately. Cincinnati punted four times in the first half and turned it over on downs late in the second quarter. T.J. Houshmandzadeh would clutch a 33-yard pass from Carson Palmer that gave the Bengals a 7-0 lead with 9:08 left in the second quarter; the Bengals lone touchdown during the afternoon. Yet it's not like the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were killing it on offense either, punting on their first four possessions, missing a field goal with a Gradkowski interception (Kevin Kaesviharn if you're curious).

At half time, we were in the middle of a defensive slobber-knocker that was compounded with stupid mistakes that often buried the Bengals offense; a constant theme that seems to date back forever.

First half breakdown between the Bengals and Buccaneers on October 15, 2006
  Bengals Buccaneers
First Downs 7 8
Total Yards 134 130
Avg. Yards/Play 4.62 3.82
Rushing Yards 3 57
Passing Yards 131 73

In truth Carson Palmer was that quarterback we expected around that time. He completed 15 of 20 passes in the first half, posting 132 yards passing and a touchdown for a passer rating of 108.8. His counterpart, Bruce Gradkowski was awful, starting his second career NFL game, completing only nine of 20 passes for 75 yards passing and an interception for a passer rating of 34.4.

Mistakes, in this case fumbles, killed the Bengals. Palmer fumbled the snap on third down during the first possession and a second down fumble by Rudi Johnson on the ensuing possession put the Bengals in third-and-13. Two incomplete passes to Chad Johnson (as he was known at the time) stalled separate possessions while somewhere in the middle Palmer completed a 33-yard touchdown pass down the left sidelines to give Cincinnati that seven-point first half lead.

Cautious, sitting on broken glass, unable to breath were just a handful of descriptions that were felt watching this game between the 0-4 Buccaneers and the 3-1 Bengals. It was too close. We were keeping them in the game. This isn't good. During Cincy Jungle's inaugural season in 2006 (yes, I've been doing this that long), I wrote "The Bengals offense has been sloppy." Really. I'm capable enough to spend two paragraphs describing a single event, sometimes in a single run-on sentence, but all we needed here was six friggin' words that responded with a gospel sounding uh-huh.

Cincinnati comes out of the gate with it's customary half time adjustments (aka, not changing a fracking thing). Bengals punt with Tampa Bay responding on an 11-play, 80-yard game-tying drive; Gradkowski completed all five passes on the drive for 22 yards, capped with a two-yard touchdown to tight end Alex Smith. After responding with a field goal, the Grakowski-led Buccaneers stalled at their own 35-yard line, forced to punt as we nervously entered the fourth quarter.

Both teams exchanged three-and-out possessions. With over ten minutes left in the fourth quarter, Shayne Graham converted a 47-yard field goal, giving the Bengals a 13-7 lead. Tampa Bay punts, the Bengals go three-and-out setting up the Buccaneers at their own 46-yard line with 4:21 left in the game.

This was the drive of the well-known Justin Smith sack.

The following day I wrote:

I won't rip the referees for interpreting the rules the way they do. It's a thankless job and their only reward is silence. Perhaps future consideration should be an official or two off the field monitoring and correcting calls made on the field. But I will rip the NFL for making this a skirt league with quarterbacks. Robert Geathers was called for roughing the passer putting Tampa Bay inside the Bengals' 10-yard line. The explanation is that he "extended his arms".  The Buccaneers scored a touchdown three plays later.

But the bigger controversy was Justin Smith's roughing the passer. Smith wrapped up Bruce Gradkowski, who lowered his head, hitting the ground with the top of his helmet. Gradkowski lost the ball and I put my arms up thinking this game was over. But since Smith tried to tackle the quarterback - which is illegal - the Bengals were penalized 15 yards; Tampa Bay scored the winning touchdown a few plays later.

I understand the idea of protecting helpless children, women and quarterbacks. Let's be honest though, hard knocks are what injures quarterbacks; not being rolled onto your head or the extension of arms. A cornerback, safety or linebacker, with a full head of steam, will devastate a Quarterback's body (Google the Ohio State Buckeyes and Drew Stanton... or Chris Simms). It took until this off-season to make a rule that defensive players couldn't shred the knee of a quarterback. Smith's sack was minimal in scope to the health of the quarterback but monumental in scope to the game.

I promise you, there will be an age that if you drop the quarterback at all, it will be considered illegal. Maybe not in the next five years, but some dope quarterback will be tackled legally breaking something forcing Roger Goodell's office, the owners and the competition committee to put a stop to the horrible treatment of Quarterbacks. Let's be honest though. It's not about the Quarterback's health; rather the owner's investment in the team's quarterback that initiates the discussion. Is that why you cheer the NFL?

Yea. I was upset. But I wasn't alone. Sports Illustrated's Peter King wrote at the time:

HORRENDOUS roughing-the-passer call in Tampa, giving the Bucs good field position as they drive, with a Toledo Rocket at quarterback, Bruce Gradkowski, to try to beat the hanging-on-for-dear-life Bengals at the Pirate Ship."

Gradkowski drove down the field, with a referee assist, completing the upset win with an eight-yard pass to Michael Clayton. After their 3-1 start, the Bengals would finish the season 8-8, capped with an overtime loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers that eliminated Cincinnati from the playoffs in consecutive seasons.