A perfect ending to an imperfect season
The season was in the can. The coach was in the toilet. When it comes to writing final scenes for the 1998 Tampa Bay Bucs, this one will do about as well as any.
The bathroom, just off from the Bucs' locker room, was cold and empty. Tony Dungy had been in a corner of the interview room, but quarterback Trent Dilfer had come in, so Dungy slipped through a door. Voila! There he was, standing in a bathroom, talking about the season that went down the drain.
His team had been so good. The Bucs who clobbered the Bengals 35- 0 were the team whose arrival he waited an entire season for. Finally, they were shutting down things on defense, creating big plays on special teams and finishing things off on offense.
There is a bittersweetness to excellence that arrives too late. Dungy felt that Sunday. Even as the Bucs built a 28-0 first-half lead, Dungy could not help but think the same thing you were thinking.
"Where has it been all season?"
This was the first time, Dungy said, his team put together all three phases of the game for the duration. There has been a lot of excellence by the defense, and some by the offense, and some by the special teams. But never at the same time.
Above all, this is what Sunday was. It was an example of the world as it should have been. With an efficient Bucs offense, a hungry Bucs defense, with forced turnovers, with only one penalty, with focus and fire. "I was thinking, 'This is what our team should be,' " Dungy said. "We weren't this year. And that's very sad."
This was a coach who was not fooling himself. His team dominated the Bengals, who mailed it in so clearly, the fourth quarter was played by Fed Ex deliverymen. It won four of its last five. It was still alive for the playoffs - it would be hours before the Cardinals would win on a last-second field goal. But Dungy's team had not performed up to standards, and he knew it.
"Our players have to realize it's difficult to show up every week," Dungy said. "We didn't. I'm not pointing the finger at anyone. I didn't do a good job getting that message across. Maybe experience is the only teacher, I don't know. We need a better understanding of what it takes to succeed in the league."
Eight-dash-eight. It isn't success, and it isn't failure. It isn't winning, and it isn't losing. It is in that gray area between the memorable and the forgettable, between something to cheer and something to boo. It is an average record by a team that will be remembered as average. Nothing more.
There are 8-million theories in the city as to why. Ask Dungy, and he just shrugs.
"I don't know," he said. "That's the mystery of this game. Why does Minnesota go 9-7 one year, add one player and then go 15-1? Why does Kansas City have it one year and not the next? We just didn't have the right chemistry this year."
The Bucs didn't have the focus, either. Oh, they had it Sunday. And against Green Bay and Minnesota, and maybe another game or two. But there were four losses to teams with losing records. There were blown leads to Washington and Tennessee and Jacksonville. There were players who did not show up every week to play.
"That's my job, to find a way to light that fuse," Dungy said. "To keep it going. To push the right buttons."
Dungy was asked what sort of grade he would give himself for the season.
"A C-minus, a D-plus maybe," he said. "I don't think we played to our capabilities. If we had done this a few more times, we wouldn't be in this position."
What Bucs team was ever accused of underachieving? This one, certainly. Even squeaking into the playoffs wouldn't have changed that.
This is the lesson Dungy wants his players to take from this season: That every week is a big game. That any defeat in any week can come back to haunt a team. Teams have only a certain window in which to win, and a year is an awfully big price to pay for such a lesson. But it is all the Bucs have left.
"Eight and eight is disappointing," Dungy said. "It's mediocre. You can say we were a play or two away from 10-6, but a lot of teams can talk like that. If you're 6-10, you're only a play or two away from 8-8. We have no one to blame but ourselves."
Trent Dilfer referred to this as "an off-season of urgency." That sounds right. The Bucs do not need an overhaul. But they need to get better. They need to develop the mental edge great teams possess. Above all, they need to remember how hollow it feels to allow a season to slip away. "If I was a player, that would be enough for me," Dungy said. "We were 8-8. We were capable of so much more."
Gary Shelton, The St.Petersburg Times 1998