This collapse defines Bucs' character
Please, Mr. Commissioner. Call this season off. In the name of mercy, please eliminate the Tampa Bay Bucs from any further consideration of the playoffs. Call the competition committee. Gather the ownership. Call Amnesty International. Whatever. Just stop the misery. It's Christmas, for goodness' sake. Tell the Bucs to go home. Now. They are not playoff worthy. They are not bowl eligible. Take part in the postseason? This team shouldn't be allowed to watch it on television.

By now, Mr. Tagliabue, it is obvious the Bucs lack the interest, the poise or the ability to be considered for anything more than punching out and going home. They are a bad team near the end of a bad season. Shame on them for pretending to be any more. Shame on you for believing. Oh, they had you going for a while there, didn't they? Early Sunday afternoon, it appeared the entire NFL was in midconspiracy to keep the Bucs alive. Other mediocre teams kept losing, like lemmings over the cliff, and for a while it looked like a crowd separating to let the Bucs in the side door.

Then came the fourth quarter, a time for the Bucs to show the nation what they were really all about. Unfortunately, they did. The Bucs were ahead by 10 with six minutes to play, and they had the ball. They were playing at home, where they had won four straight. They were facing the Saints, a bad team with an awful defense that had been just as allergic to the fourth quarter as they were. Their defensive players were taking turns knocking Aaron Brooks around. Still, they lost.

They gagged, they choked, they folded. They stunk, they flopped, they imploded. With their season on the line, they fainted at the sight of their own prosperity. They could not hold onto the ball. They could not stop a fourth and 12. They could not cover a punt. They could not make a stand. They could not pick up a first down. They could not salvage a season they have tried so hard, so often, to bury. Even for a team that had perfected the fourth-quarter fade, this was staggering. If you are into ranking flops, this one can stand with the all-timers of this franchise.

Yes, it was bigger than last year's collapse against the Colts, because that was only Week 4 of the season. Yes, it was bigger than the Rams game of '92 when the Bucs blew a 25-point lead. The stakes weren't the same. You could argue the defeat to Green Bay in 2000, when Martin Gramatica missed a field goal that cost the Bucs a division title and a bye week, instead sending them toward a cold defeat in Philadelphia. However, you can offer that was more of an individual collapse. "This is No.1," Ronde Barber said. "This is about as far down in the gut as it gets for Buc football."

Barber's voice was of a different tone Sunday. His words were clipped, angry. "We're not a very good football team," Barber said. "We don't deserve to be in the playoffs. If we can't win a game like this, why should we go to the playoffs and embarrass ourselves?"

The playoffs? Of course the Bucs don't deserve to be in the playoffs. Hey, they have fourth quarters in the postseason, too. This season, the Bucs have lost eight games that were winnable in the final quarter (one lead, five ties, two games within four points). This wasn't a fluke. This was another piece of identification. This is who these players are. This is what they do.

By now, it is like watching The Rocky Horror Picture Show . You wait for someone to tell you he has seen seven performances so you can tell him you have seen eight. Against the Saints, the Bucs did the time warp again. These days, the Bucs enter the fourth quarter looking for trap doors. Coaches turn conservative. Players grow cautious. Everyone plays safe, tiptoeing around as if something bad is going to happen. "I don't think that's happening," Barber said. "But it damn sure looks like it, doesn't it?"

Consider, when the Bucs led 17-7, all they needed to do was chew up clock against the NFL's worst defense (and second-worst pass defense). Instead, Pittman ran into the line three straight times. Net gain? Minus-1. After the Saints got within three - and who knew a punter could underkick his coverage? - the Bucs went straight back to the ground. Of course they did. Pittman fumbled. Of course he did. In 11 games, Pittman has fumbled more than any running back in the NFL. It makes you wonder why Pittman was carrying the ball in that situation. When you remember how being conservative contributed to the loss in Carolina, it makes you wonder if a safe pass might have worked.

That's the thing about this team. They have had enough occasional flashes to make you wonder what if. In the end, however, they cannot sign the check. Not even on fourth and a dozen. Commish, they have tried so hard to surrender. Game after game, they have snatched defeat from victory. Yet, somehow, the number-crunchers say they are alive. We put it to you, Tags. Is this really in the best interest of the NFL? Pass a rule. Pull the plug. End the suffering. It's your call. Please eliminate the Bucs. If the Bucs haven't suffered enough, the rest of us have.

Gary Shelton The St.Petersburg Times 20 December 2004