Awakening Ghosts Of Yore
It was the first alumni weekend. Bucs coach Jon Gruden, delighted with the turnout, said he hoped former players felt at home. Not to worry.

Refugees from the franchise's darkest days must have endured 0-and-26 flashbacks on Sunday. The Bucs didn't need orange jerseys. Sunday's 17-6 loss to the Atlanta Falcons was a complete throwback effort. In the beginning, there was no offense. In the beginning, it was a mighty struggle to reach the end zone. In the beginning, there was unspeakable frustration. Kind of like Sunday's game.

You noticed defensive back Danny Reece, a refugee from 1976. He scored the franchise's first touchdown - on a fumble return. Four games into the season. He still has the ball.

You saw running back Louis Carter, another player from the 0-14 team. He threw the franchise's first touchdown pass. After the Bucs were stuffed three times from the 1-yard line, Carter hurtled into the middle on fourth down and was knocked backward. He wobbled a bit before tossing an improvisational shot-put toss to unsuspecting wideout Morris Owens, who neatly stepped into the end zone. Touchdown! Notice a pattern here?

The Bucs made an unwitting nod to the past. For the sixth time this season, the Bucs failed to score an offensive touchdown. For the fifth time, they were held scoreless in the second half. Since the opening drive at Dallas, they have gone 32 consecutive possessions without a touchdown. The Bucs offense has 14 touchdowns and holding. LaDainian Tomlinson has 29 by himself.

Welcome home, alumni. No excuse for this. No reason why the Bucs should be staring down the barrel of a potential Thanksgiving-to-Christmas-Eve stretch without scoring a touchdown (we're going out on a limb here and predicting a punchless afternoon for Tampa Bay's skill players at Soldier Field).

No way it should be this bad. "The offense just didn't step up," Bucs tight end Alex Smith. "It's hard to put a finger on it."

Actually, it would be more gratifying to put two hands on it, shake it silly, strangle it, then throw it in the gutter. It's not working. Hardly any downfield throws by Bruce Gradkowski? A draw play (for no gain) on third-and-goal from the 5? The running game (80 yards, 2.8-yard average) a complete non-factor?

Two fumbles leading to 10 Atlanta points? "I think our offense begins and ends with the run," Smith said. "We've got to get that going."

"We tried the two-hole, the three-hole, the four-hole, the five-hole, the six-hole, the hole-hole we ran outside, we ran traps," Gruden said. "After a while, you've got to take that guy and knock the [defender] off the ball. Once in a while, you've got to make three guys miss."

None of that is happening for the Bucs. Once again, a good defensive effort was wasted. Michael Vick was contained (5 yards rushing). Running backs Warrick Dunn and Jerious Norwood were knocked out. The Falcons had only one decent scoring drive all afternoon. But what did it matter?

If you can't score, you can't win. "I think that [frustration level hitting its peak] was a couple of weeks ago," Bucs cornerback Juran Bolden said. "It's a broken record. It's getting old. But we've got to keep fighting. And we will."

"This is about as bad of a feeling as I think you can have right now," Bucs cornerback Ronde Barber said.

And what about Derrick Brooks, the senior Buccaneer in terms of consecutive service, a man who did wear the orange? By game's end, his face was scrunched into a telltale grimace. "The character is being tested every week," Brooks said. "We're going to fight. And in the end, we're going to get what we deserve."

Truer words were never spoken. The Bucs are 3-10 - on merit. If the offense does not muster anything better, the Bucs will not win again in 2006. It's a predicament familiar to the old Buccaneer players. But back then, it was an expansion team. What about now? "We're building something," Brooks said. "The Lord is taking us through this for something. I don't know what it is."

It's ugly to watch. But maybe it was a fitting display for alumni weekend. Nobody has a better understanding of such offensive hopelessness. On a dark day, nobody felt more at home.

Joey Johnston, The Tampa Tribune 11 December 2006