Superb Sunday Spoiled
Inside the Bucs locker room, there was indisputable visual evidence that Michael Pittman accepted the blame for Sunday's 21-17 ridiculous loss to the New Orleans Saints. The slumped shoulders. The grim expression. He took it hard. In truth, there wasn't enough hay at Raymond James Stadium to feed all the goats responsible for this collapse. Pittman never backed down. ``I let a lot of people down today - the fans of Tampa, the coaches, my family,'' said Pittman, who won't remember his 131 rushing yards, the highest total in his 46 games with Tampa Bay. ``I know that one player can't lose a game. But I feel like I lost the game.''

The play in question was, at best, questionable. With the Bucs leading 17-14, Pittman fumbled at the Tampa Bay 41-yard line with 3:27 remaining, and Saints cornerback Fakhir Brown recovered. Replays seemed to indicate that Pittman was down by contact before the ball popped loose. Out came the red flag from Jon Gruden. The play was being challenged. As replays were shown on the stadium's giant video boards, fans grinned and slapped high-fives. The result seemed that obvious.

It wasn't. Apparently, there were other instant-replay angles. There was doubt. So officially, it was a fumble. The Saints promptly drove for the winning touchdown. ``The ruling on the field stands without indisputable visual evidence to overturn the call on the field,'' referee Jeff Triplette said afterward. ``We could not see him down with the ball in his possession. So we don't have anything. We can't overturn without the evidence.''

Pittman sighed. ``I thought I was down, honestly,'' he said. ``I guess replays showed my butt wasn't down. So it's on me.''

It's on me. Coaches and teammates wouldn't let Pittman stand alone. ``Either way they call it, our defense has to go out there and stop them,'' Derrick Brooks said.

``Every guy has to be held accountable,'' Brian Griese said. ``It's all of our faults.''

``It [the call] was stunning to me,'' Gruden said. ``In the press box, we were all looking at the same video the officials were looking at. We all thought he was down.''

He was. Down and out. ``I feel awful,'' Pittman said.

This, too, is indisputable. Since returning from a three-game suspension to start the season, Pittman has played extremely hard. He has rushed for 835 yards and caught 35 passes for 348. But fumbles have been a huge problem. He has lost five this season, a career high. But the Bucs have been forgiving. When Mike Alstott lost a first-quarter fumble, for example, he never saw the ball again. They keep feeding Pittman, no matter what.

Maybe that's on the Bucs. At 5-9, they are in position to grab Cadillac Williams, Ronnie Brown, Cedric Benson, someone, anyone, to prevent Pittman from becoming a weary workhorse. In a season of missed opportunities, the Bucs have continually dropped the ball. Why should Sunday have been any different? ``Whether it was a fumble or not, there's no reason this game should have ever been close,'' Dwight Smith said. ``We were the better team - way, way better. Then, to make it even worse, all the teams we needed to lose, they all lost. And that's been going on for three or four weeks. I mean, how many chances do you want?''

At this point, Pittman said he wouldn't be surprised if his chances are more limited. ``I always try to work my butt off for my teammates,'' Pittman said. ``I don't know what Coach Gruden is going to do now. If I'm not starting next week, I'm still going to help out any way I can. I'm just disgusted. The fumbles? Hey, I've got guys stripping at me all practice long. I just feel like I'm in a funk. Like a baseball player in a slump. These are the most fumbles I've lost in my career. So you've got to put it on my shoulders.''

Partially. Not completely. Explaining this collapse - and this unraveling season - isn't that convenient. Pittman has company. Plenty of it. That's indisputable.

Joey Johnston The Tampa Tribune 20 December 2004