TAMPA, Fla. — As Luke McCown answered a question, his cell phone rang.
“Excuse me,” he said as he turned around to check the number.
“It’s probably ESPN,” quipped a reporter.
After what the Jacksonville High School product did on Sunday, that wasn’t a stretch.
McCown admitted to exhaustion on the plane ride back after leading the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to a 27-23 victory over New Orleans at the Louisiana Superdome. But his performance — 29-of-37 passing for a career-high 313 yards, 2 touchdowns and 1 interception — made him a popular guy in the locker room on Monday.
For starters, McCown had to explain to everyone where Jacksonville was.
“Do you know where Tyler is?” McCown asked.
“Tyler?” said the reporter. “All I’ve got is Houston, Dallas and San Antonio.”
After mapping out his roots, McCown talked about his first start in nearly three years, and easily his most successful.
He admitted he needed the plane ride to process what he had done in place of Tampa Bay’s regular starter, Jeff Garcia.
“It was good to just sit back and take a breath,” McCown said. “Physically, mentally, emotionally (I was exhausted).”
McCown last started on Dec. 26, 2004 against Miami. Since he was traded to Tampa Bay in the spring of 2005, he spent his time on the bench, including missing all of last season with a knee injury.
So Sunday’s start was important and McCown had most of his family to watch him play. His parents, Pat and Robin, were in attendance, as was his sister, Amy, and his old high school coach, Danny Long. Long is now the Tyler ISD athletic director.
Randy, the oldest McCown brother, did not attend after he nearly cut off one of his fingers in a work accident on Friday.
And where was Josh? Well, the middle McCown brother had even less notice than Luke did of his start on Sunday. Josh went 14-of-21 passing for 141 yards and three touchdowns to lead the Oakland Raiders to a 34-20 win over Denver. Their games were going on at the same time on Sunday.
Luke didn’t realize what Josh had done until after the game.
“I called him as soon as I got on the bus,” Josh said. “We talked. Actually, he had been home for a little while when I called him and was watching our game on TiVo. He was critiquing me on a few things.”
As for his own performance, Bucs head coach Jon Gruden said McCown made about “10 or 15 plays” that he hadn’t seen Buccaneers quarterbacks make the past few years. He pointed to McCown’s 60-yard pass to Joey Galloway, his bootleg pass to fullback B.J. Askew and his 26-yard scramble for a first down.
“I thought he showed tremendous poise, great command and he also made a lot of plays,” Gruden said. “So those three things stood out in my mind.”
Still, McCown’s great game nearly became a loss. A miscommunication on an audible between he and Galloway cost the Buccaneers a touchdown, as Saints cornerback Mike McKenzie returned to the end zone for a 21-20 Saints lead.
In the fourth quarter, McCown held onto the football too long in the end zone and was sacked for a safety by Will Smith.
Down 23-20, all McCown could do was watch and hope the defense could force a turnover in the final minutes. With 3:36 left the Buccaneers defense recovered a Saints fumble on a double reverse at the New Orleans 37.
“I didn’t want it to end the way it was looking like it would end with that safety,” McCown said. “I was pleading with the defense, ‘Get us the ball back, get us the ball back.’”
McCown then guided the Bucs’ game-winning drive, finishing with a 4-yard touchdown pass to Jerramy Stevens with 14 seconds left that he nearly threw over Stevens’ head, though the play was designed for a high pass.
“It was a lot better catch than a throw, I can promise you that,” McCown said.
His time in the spotlight may be short-lived. Gruden made it clear that Garcia will reclaim his starting job as soon as he’s cleared to play and that could be Sunday in Houston. If so, McCown would be the No. 2 quarterback and sit on the sideline in front of what would surely be a crowd filled with McCown’s friends and family.
That’s out of his control. Even he knows that. But at least he took advantage of his opportunity, he said.
“The game will speak for itself,” McCown said. “My focus was trying to help this team win. I wasn’t trying to prove a point or to prove anybody wrong.”
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Matthew Postins covers the Buccaneers for Bucsblitz.com and the Charlotte (Fla.) Sun-Herald. He is a member of the Pro Football Writers Association, and his coverage of the Buccaneers has won numerous state and national awards.