Out Of Their Hands
For weeks it seemed like a long shot. Some of the players in the Bucs locker room had even stopped talking about their chances of making the playoffs. Ronde Barber wasn't among them. Barber was one who held out hope, who believed the Bucs were better than their record indicated and believed even more that they would prove it in the end. Then came the fourth quarter of Sunday's game against the New Orleans Saints at Raymond James Stadium. It was a quarter in which the Bucs built a 10-point lead, then tore it down, play by miserable play.

When the collapse was done the Bucs were on the downside of a 21-17 score, their playoff hopes were virtually gone and Barber's faith hadn't just been shaken, it had been destroyed. ``We're a bad football team,'' Barber said flatly after the Bucs fell to 5-9 and guaranteed themselves a second consecutive losing season. ``Playoffs? We don't deserve to be in the playoffs, not the way we're playing. I mean, Carolina loses for us and [St. Louis] loses for us and we don't have the gumption to go out and finish off a team after we build a 10-point lead on them. That's just pathetic.''

What's more is that losses like this have become commonplace. Sunday's collapse marked the fifth time this year and the 11th time the last two seasons that the Bucs have lost after being ahead or tied in the fourth quarter. ``For the first time in a long time I'm just speechless,'' Derrick Brooks said. ``I just don't have any answers. We just keep finding ways to give away games.''

They gave Sunday's game away in what has become typical fashion - by squandering scoring opportunities, surrendering big plays at crucial moments and committing costly turnovers. Brian Griese committed the latter offense late in last week's critical loss at San Diego. This time around the culprit was Michael Pittman. With the Bucs holding a 17-14 lead and looking to run out the 3:19 remaining on the clock, Pittman ran left for a yard to his own 40, but fumbled the ball away as he went down. ``I was just trying to run hard,'' said Pittman, whose fumble was his fifth of the season. ``I was just trying to make a play, but that's been the story all season long. I swore that I was down.''

So did the Bucs. They challenged the ruling, claiming Pittman was on the ground before he lost the ball. Referee Jeff Triplette upheld the ruling on the field, however, and gave the ball to the Saints. Six plays later, the game was over. After allowing the Saints to escape a fourth-and-12 hole on a 13-yard scramble by Aaron Brooks, the Bucs allowed a 22-yard Brooks-to-Boo Williams pass and a 7-yard Brooks-to-Donte Stallworth touchdown pass that gave New Orleans its winning edge.

The victory marked the first time in eight tries this year the Saints had won after being behind in the fourth quarter. For the Bucs, it was just another dose of frustration. ``This is one of the toughest losses I've ever been associated with,'' said Griese, who threw a costly interception from the New Orleans 12 early in the third quarter. ``It's disappointing because of the opportunities we had. I felt like we had the game wrapped up.''

The Bucs had recovered from allowing a 98-yard touchdown return by Aaron Stecker on the opening kickoff to take a 17-7 lead. Griese connected with Joey Galloway for a 3-yard touchdown in the first quarter and the Bucs added a 59-yard Galloway punt return in the third and Jay Taylor's 37-yard field goal in the fourth quarter for their 10-point advantage. But those were the last of the Bucs' big plays.

The rest belonged to the Saints, whose comeback started with a 53-yard punt return by Michael Lewis. That set up a 4-yard Aaron Brooks-to-Joe Horn touchdown pass that made it 17-14, and Pittman's fumble did the rest. ``It wasn't like we were trying anything fancy on offense,'' Griese said. ``We were in a situation where we were just trying to control the ball and run out the clock and it came back to bite us.''

The loss took a major bite out of the Bucs' playoff chances. As Sunday's games neared their end, the Bucs were in a position to move into a tie with Carolina and St. Louis at 6-8 for the last of the NFC's two wild-card berths. When Sunday's games were done, the Bucs found themselves alone in last place in the NFC South with a better record than only 2-12 San Francisco in the NFC.

``The window was open and every time we approached it we found a way to close it ourselves this year,'' Brooks said. ``This is the second week in a row we found a way to lose in the last three minutes. Look at our record. ... We went from controlling our own destiny to needing anything short of a miracle. I agree with Ronde Barber. The playoffs are secondary to us right now. Right now, we just have to find a way to play good football and end the season with a positive taste in our mouths.''

Roy Cummings The Tampa Tribune 20 December 2004