Close not close enough when a team is losing
Almost, they will tell you. Nearly, they will say. They will hold their index fingers close to their thumbs, and they will talk about close calls and near misses. They will shake their heads and talk about snake bites and bad breaks. They will talk about coulda, and they will mix in a little shoulda, and then they will sum up with woulda. The sight of the Bucs losing is getting kind of familiar. So, too, is the sound of how they explain it.

The Bucs let a game get away Monday night, all right, but there is no consolation in it. Losing a winnable game is not an invitation to feel better; it's a reason to feel worse. It is an acknowledgement that the game is in your hands, and still, you cannot hold it. It is an announcement that the season can be saved, and yet, you cannot manage it. That's the way losing works. You are always talking about the fish that got away, the opportunity that you just missed. Yet, losing teams lose, and winning teams win.

If it gives you comfort then, say it. The Bucs almost beat the Rams. They almost covered Torry Holt. They nearly didn't fumble away their chances. On the other hand, a donkey is almost a horse, and a skunk is almost a squirrel. If the traffic light cooperates, a Kia isn't that far from a Corvette. This, then, is the new reality of the Bucs. They are a walking thesaurus on "almost."

Also, they are 1-5. That isn't a hole. That's a grave. It's a shame. They were close to changing everything Monday night, from perception to possibilities. For much of the night, the Bucs outplayed the Rams, and Brian Griese looked like Jeff Kent in a helmet. For the second straight week, Griese played well. He hit his first nine passes, and once again, he allowed the offense to look coordinated around him. He went into the game as the short-term solution, and darned if he didn't earn a longer term. He hit 27 out of 40 passes for 286 yards, and for much of the night, he kept the chains moving.

There for a spell, Griese made you do math, didn't he. If Tampa Bay had pulled this game out, it would have been 2-4, with five division games left. Suddenly, you might have detected a pulse. Instead, the Bucs are 1-5. Frankly, the Bucs worked very hard to lose this game. They blew opportunities and they blew coverages. They missed kicks and they lost grips. They didn't run, and they didn't stun.

In spite of all of their mistakes, the Bucs still were playing against the Rams' defense. As a result, there was one series, midway through the fourth quarter, where the Bucs seemed to have the game well in hand. With the score tied at 14, linebacker Ian Gold intercepted a pass by Mark Bulger, and he returned the ball to the Rams' 15. As sharp as Griese had been, it seemed the lead was inevitable. On the first play, however, Michael Pittman ran to his left for 8 yards. As he was tackled, he lost the ball. The Rams' Adam Archuleta picked up the ball and ran 92 yards for a touchdown. This is what losing teams do. They trip on the sidewalk. They step into puddles. They run into posts. Losing teams miss field goals. Martin Gramatica missed two in the first half. Can the guy please change his number back?

Losing teams blow coverages. Gee. Who would have thought the Rams might throw deep to their top receiver, Holt, on third and 9? Yet, Holt went in untouched for a 52-yard touchdown in the game's fifth play. Losing teams fumble. Such as the Bucs' fumble on their 5 to gift-wrap the Rams' second touchdown. Such as Pittman's fumble on the Rams' 8 to hand them their third. Such as Tim Brown's fumble at the 12 with 26 seconds to go. Losing teams fall just short. Such as the Bucs' surge toward another tie late in the fourth quarter. That one ended when Griese threw an interception in the end zone.

Losing teams talk about how close they are. Let's face it. The Bucs aren't close to anything but a high draft pick. At 1-5, the glass is one-eighth full, and the rim is chipped, and there is something swimming in the water. Losing teams talk about injuries and bad bounces and the sun in your eyes. We get it. Look, this isn't a closest-to-the-hole competition. Close doesn't count. Almost isn't good enough. All the Bucs accomplished on Monday night was to make sure that residents of St. Louis aren't lining up this morning to leap off the arch. Frankly, losing their third straight to the Astros and their fourth straight to the Bucs might have been too much to handle.

As for the fans in Tampa Bay? Here's a suggestion. Refuse to listen when Jon Gruden talks about injuries. Everyone has injuries. Turn the sound down when athletes talk about close losses. Once again, that bacon on your plate is almost a pig. Look what happened to it. Stop talking about the season as if it were a living organism that could yet walk again. Think of it, instead, as a Sunday game in the park. If it helps, you might almost pay attention.

Gary Shelton The St.Petersburg Times 19 October 2004