Something's Missing, And Gruden Is Running Out Of Time To Find It
The game was lost. Is the season far behind? If only that old standby, Johnson to Johnson to Pittman to McCardell to Johnson to Coleman to Green, had worked like it should. If only Cosey Coleman had broken one off. It was a desperate play from what could soon be desperate defending champions. The worm hasn't turned, but it has its blinker on. All that was missing from the final Stanford-Cal moment of the 17-14 loss that made the Bucs 4-4 was someone running over a guy with a trombone.

The victory march has faded. Sitting somewhere between crest and fallen inside the losing locker room, a spent Jon Gruden wore his visor backward and looked ahead. ``It's going to be a challenge,'' Gruden admitted. ``It's going to be an incredible journey for eight weeks.``

It has to beat the first eight. But will it? This has been anything but a fantastic voyage. Is there another half-season ride like this out there? If so, we'd like to get off. The champs, or what's left of them beneath the bandages, have found exciting new ways to lose. Some of the things that have happened amaze Gruden. Like this play Sunday, when a Saint split two pulling Bucs offensive lineman to nail Michael Pittman on his way to the end zone. ``You can't have a better ... that just can't happen,'' Gruden said. ``It's like being hit with a bolt of lightning in the head. The chances of that happening are ... I can't believe it. You've got to be kidding me.''

Pause. `We've had some bolts.'' Flash: this is trouble. The team that marched to San Diego without losing two games in a row now can't win two in a row. They either walk with kings or stumble like clowns. Yes, they could be 6-2 but for a missed extra point and a blown call on an onside kick. And we haven't mentioned injuries.

But if you want to know how many NFL teams think they could have won more games, add up the number of NFL teams and subtract one - the unbeaten Chiefs. Gruden knows the math. He wore it on his face Sunday: lethargic start, six turnovers, blown chances, late comeback, later New Orleans drive for the winning field goal. He wore it all. ``It's hard to swallow,'' Gruden said. ``We've had our share of swallowing this year. We've swallowed some real whoppers. I'm crushed. I am just crushed. I'm sick for the fans and the players.''

It wasn't supposed to be this way. Gruden was supposed to oversee a champion, not an emergency room. Jermaine Phillips, playing for John Lynch, fractured his forearm Sunday. David Gibson, signed earlier this week, went in. ``You see Lynch come off the field, then you see his backup Phillips come off the field,'' Gruden said. ``David Gibson is playing strong safety today. I just met David today, OK?' At the same time, you can't turn the ball over, you can't fumble, you can't miss field goals, you can't let them score on a two-minute drill late in the game. That's the reality of football.''

The reality is 4-4. And 1-3 at home. And on and on. It's more than the injuries. They don't excuse all of this. Far from it. Injuries didn't make Martin Gramatica miss that field goal or Michael Pittman fumble that ball or Brad Johnson throw that awful pick. Injuries don't account for the Bucs' listless approach to most of Sunday's game, as if they can turn it on and off and get away with that, making their Super Bowl rings shine on command. There's more missing than bodies. Maybe it's just one play a game - the one the Bucs don't make. ``We won a lot of close games last year,'' Gruden said. ``We didn't win every game by 37. I heard you guys say, `Ugly win, man, ugly win.' You guys called me the ugly duckling. We won the kind of games we're losing now.''

Times are tough all over. The Bucs' opponent in last year's Super Bowl is 2-6. Some Oakland Raiders are deserting Coach Bill Callahan. It's not like that here, but Gruden knows that words - and excuses - don't mean much. '`It's just storytelling,'' he said.

Here's the real story: Sunday at Carolina amounts to a division knockout game. A loss probably means the Bucs are reduced to a wild-card chase. Key word: chase. ``We've got to fight our butt off to win the next game,'' Gruden said. A bolt of reality. They've had some bolts.