Handling becomes struggle
Michael Pittman's downcast eyes and somber voice said it all Sunday. "I'm disappointed, hurt more than anything," he said quietly to a throng of reporters and TV cameras by his locker. "I'm just disgusted with myself. I feel like I blew it."

He had just offered the crowd of 65,075 at Raymond James Stadium a microcosm of his season: a highlight reel of clutch, explosive running that has raised Buc hopes, followed by the persistent fumble problem that has too often dashed them. In fact, had it not been for his fifth lost football of the season late in the game against the Saints, Pittman would most likely have been answering questions about his 131-yard rushing game. Or the impressive 58-yard run in the fourth quarter that sparked a field goal drive in which the Bucs padded their lead to 17-7 in a game they couldn't afford to lose.

Instead, the only topic at hand was the fumble that Pittman lost with 3:27 left to play that the Saints recovered at the Tampa Bay 41 with the Bucs leading 17-14. A replay appeared to show that Pittman was down before the ball popped out, but a challenge by coach Jon Gruden failed (officials explained that there was no conclusive evidence to overturn the call). The turnover led to New Orleans' go-ahead touchdown in a 21-17 victory that kept their faint playoff chances alive. "I thought I was down, but that's really irrelevant right now," he said. "Because they said I wasn't, and they (the Saints) got the ball back and they scored. I know one player can't lose the game, but right now, that's how I feel. I lost the game."

It was a painful deja vu for Pittman, who was suspended from the first three games of the season. In Game 6 on Oct.18, he fumbled at the St. Louis 7 and the ball was returned 93 yards for a touchdown, helping the Rams secure a 28-21 Monday night victory. His two fumbles at Carolina Nov.28 contributed to the Panthers' 21-14 triumph. But none hurt more than his fumble Sunday, deflating what should have been Tampa Bay's surge into serious contention for the final wild-card playoff berth.

In his past four home games, Pittman has 433 total rushing yards and six touchdowns. He has rushed for more than 100 yards in four of his past eight games. And yet, what will be remembered most is his costly inability to hold on to the football. "I'm just trying to run hard, that's all," he said. "I swore I was down, but the replay I guess showed I wasn't. The guy stripped the ball out. I just feel like I let everybody down."

Pittman didn't want to hear any talk about mathematical chances the 5-9 Bucs still have in the playoff race. "I really can't even focus on that right now, because I'm worried about the fumble," he said. "I'm just disappointed in myself. It hurts. It hurts a lot. I feel like I let down everybody - the organization, the fans, my coaches, my family, everybody."

A second wave, then a third, of reporters arrived at his locker. Pittman, eyes fixed downward, quietly answered all the questions, rehashing the fumble and revealing the turmoil within. "I'm angry at myself," he said. "I have high expectations in myself and I was just running hard and I should have secured the ball. Regardless of whether I was down or not, I should have held on to the ball. This year has been a bad year for me fumbling. If you look at my record in the past, I really didn't fumble that much. But this year, it's just like a funk.

All Pittman can do, he says, is rededicate himself in the final two games of the season and concentrate on holding on to the football. "I just have a lot of pride, and I'm going to bounce back," he said. "Hopefully my teammates can still depend on me, because I'll fight for them, but if they can't depend on me, I'll understand that. I've lost five fumbles this year, most in my career. But I'm just going to stay positive and keep fighting."

Dave Scheiber The St.Petersburg Times 20 December 2004