In This Imperfect Season, Loss Makes Perfect Sense
Martin Fennelly, The Tampa Tribune, published 21 December 2003

Was it even a surprise? It was just another bad ending. Just another reason to think San Diego was a dream. There will be no playoffs. By Saturday, it made perfect sense that the Bucs would end their incredibly imperfect title defense by losing to the 3-11 Atlanta Falcons.

It made perfect sense that they loped in with the lack of urgency that has haunted them week after week. It made sense that they roared back, 21 points worth, all heart before a half-filled home stadium. Who was watching? It made sense that they fell short. Another Brad Johnson pass batted down, a tying 2-pointer by the boards, the comeback spoiled. It made perfect sense this season.

So did this: Down the hall from Jon Gruden and the losing locker room, Rich McKay stood in front of an Atlanta Falcons banner. His new team had ended his old team's playoff chances. Perfect sense. McKay nodded to Warren Sapp as Sapp left the building, maybe for good. What a day. The only thing missing was Keyshawn hopping by on a pogo stick. ``It's been novel material,'' Ronde Barber said.

Slam the book shut. It wins all tiebreakers. Why should it surprise anyone that the Bucs stood with slouched shoulders as Atlanta laughed its way to a 30-7 lead? These are the same guys who had to fall to 4-6 before they realized, hey, this is serious. By then it was too late. It was like that Saturday. ``We just ran out of time,'' Ken Dilger said.

You always do when you wait around before deciding to play. The Bucs lost focus early and lost focus late. All season. They either fell behind or fell short. When games came down to crunch time, the champs got crunched. No focus, pure and simple. That's players. That's coaching. They weren't accountable enough, responsible enough, motivated enough, and it cost them.

Eight losses later, it still hasn't completely sunk in. Gruden, who set the tone, couldn't shake the notion that his team had been so very close. He pointed to all the tight games the Bucs lost, which only served to remind us of all the tight ones they won last season. The Bucs never knew which end of this season was up. They never had it in their grasp. How do you explain how they came out against Atlanta for their final home game? I don't care if the Falcons have Michael Vick, though the team's new general manager does.

The Bucs stumbled around. Brad Johnson, who has been hemorrhaging knuckleballs down the stretch, threw four interceptions in one half that added up to 24 Falcons points. Then there was Vick. One play he made said the future lies with Atlanta. Vick and runner T.J. Duckett smacked into each other on a fourth-and-one handoff. Vick yanked the ball away and took off. Derrick Brooks lunged for him. Barber did the same. Vick made a first down with Bucs on the grass. The moment brimmed with symbolism.

So did the Bucs' failed comeback. It took them 50 minutes to realize the Falcons had no defense. They came fast and furious and with pride. That same Brad Johnson threw three touchdowns in 11 minutes, the last to Jameel Cook with seconds remaining. But destiny hopped off this club a while back. Bothered by all the distractions, I suppose. Or just sick of excuses. Some Bucs talked about how Keenan McCardell was held on the conversion try. True. But no one mentioned the Falcon who came up the middle to bat down Johnson's pass.

Now reality can't be excused away. The denial which doomed this season has been mathematically eliminated. This season made perfect sense. So did this: The Bucs championship season DVD went on sale to the public Thursday. Figures. Too little, too late. It still makes a great holiday gift. Give one to the Bucs. They'd see a team with a fire in its belly. They'd see a team that rose to occasions instead of shrinking from them. They'd see the champions of the world. The Bucs should watch it again and again. They could use a repeat.