Once Promising Bucs Season Ends With A Thud
Their plan was to go home, wait and watch as their playoff fate unfolded. Instead, the Buccaneers went home late Sunday to wonder. To wonder not just what might have been, but what will be.

A season that started out so promising ended as arguably the most disappointing in franchise history, the result of a 31-24 loss to the Raiders at Raymond James Stadium. The loss was the fourth straight for this Tampa Bay club, which became the first Bucs team and the first NFL team since the realignment of the divisions in 2002 to miss the playoffs after starting the season 9-3.

One has to wonder, though, just what kind of a playoff team the Bucs would have been, especially after losing running back Cadillac Williams to a left knee injury and linebacker Derrick Brooks to a hamstring injury.

Williams, who recently returned to the lineup after missing a year due to a torn right patellar tendon, injured his left knee finishing off a 28-yard run in the fourth quarter of what was easily his best game this year. Williams was in obvious pain and noticeably upset after the injury and had to be assisted off the field and into the Bucs locker room.

Brooks, who injured his left hamstring late in the Bucs loss a week ago to San Diego, injured his right hamstring late in a fourth quarter in which the Raiders railed from 10 points down to win for only the fifth time this year. "It hurts," Brooks said, speaking most about the Bucs collapse. "That's the one emotion that's running through me - hurt. I wish I had the words to explain [the collapse] but I don't."

Indeed, the last quarter of the Bucs 2008 season will go down as perhaps the most confounding and inexplicable in franchise history, particularly because of the play of the Bucs once-vaunted defense. A unit that allowed just one rushing touchdown and one 100-yard rusher through the first 12 weeks of the season was raked for 756 rushing yards and seven touchdowns the last four games.

The Raiders, who lost their top back (Justin Fargas) in the first quarter of Sunday's game, ran through them for 192 yards, and that was with third-team back Michael Bush (27 carries, 177 yards, two touchdowns) getting most of the work.

Jon Gruden continued to blame injuries to defensive regulars such as Brooks (ribs, hamstring), Jovan Haye (knee) and Chris Hovan (knee) for a lot of the problems but Bucs players said the problem was poor execution. "You can't sugar-coat it," linebacker Barrett Ruud said. "We were just bad. We just weren't the same defense these last four weeks."

They weren't the same offense either. A team that struggled to get into the end zone for much of the season, the Bucs scored 23 points or more in three of their last four games. They also held a fourth quarter lead in three of those games, including a 24-14 lead over the Raiders. In each case, though, the Bucs collapsed down the stretch, allowing 62 fourth-quarter points while scoring 19. "No matter who writes the story, that's not a recipe for success in this league," Gruden said. "I'm sick for our players and for our fans. It's really heartbreaking."

As heartbreaking as it is, it really isn't all that surprising. After all, the Bucs have never gone to the playoffs two years in a row under Gruden and with defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin leaving one has to wonder if a rebuilding project isn't in the offing. Many of the Bucs top players this year are 30 years old or older and age seemed to be a factor down the stretch as the Bucs struggled to beat seemingly weaker yet much-younger teams.

The Raiders certainly qualify as one of those teams. They had won just four games prior to coming to Tampa Bay but they beat the Bucs even without their best player cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha. "It was one of those things where we started off a little slow, but then we got into a good rhythm and the running game finally took off," Bucs center Jeff Faine said. "But we just shot ourselves in the foot too many times."

Early on Sunday, the Raiders simply shot the Bucs down, limiting them to 46 yards during the first quarter. That allowed the Raiders to take the initial lead, the 11th time this year that a team has scored first on Tampa Bay. Bush, who had run the ball just 67 times prior to Sunday, ran in from 4 yards out for the game's initial score, but it was Johnny Lee Higgins who helped get him and the Raiders into scoring position.

Higgins returned a punt to the Bucs 40 to start the drive and later caught a 17-yard pass from quarterback JaMarcus Russell that set the Raiders up with a first down at the Bucs 12. The score marked the 11th time this year that the Bucs have allowed their opponents to score first. As they have all year, though, the Bucs quickly bounced back.

Sparked by the play of Jeff Garcia, who scrambled out of trouble and jumped over a pursuing lineman to deliver a 29-yard pass to Michael Clayton, the Bucs drove 80 yards in 11 plays to tie the game. Williams ran the final 9 yards of the drive to get the game-tying score, but it wasn't long before the Raiders got the ball back and regained the lead.

After stopping the Bucs two-minute offense and forcing a punt that allowed them to set up at their own 39, the Raiders quickly drove 61 yards to build a 14-7 halftime ege. Their ability to connect on third down made the score possible as the Raiders gained 29 yards to the 10 on a third-and-4 play and the last 3 yards on Russell's TD pass to Chaz Schilens to regain the lead.

The Bucs, of course, have been struggling to get off the field for weeks. In the three games prior to Sunday they allowed opponents to convert 21 of 37 third down tries, or 57 percent. That trend continued against the Raiders, who started slow in that critical area but finished the first half having converted five of nine third downs.

The Bucs offense didn't perform poorly on third down, converting three of seven tries, or 43 percent, during the first half and one of two through the early going of the second. The one third down they converted early in the second half was a big one as it came on a third-and-10 play from their 42 in which Garcia hit Michael Clayton with a 58-yard touchdown pass.

That tied the game, 14-14, and one drive later the Bucs converted two more third downs en route to taking their first lead of the game, that coming on a 29-yard field goal by Matt Bryant one play into the fourth quarter. The Bucs increased their lead to 24-14 shortly thereafter, with Williams scoring his second touchdown of the day on an 8-yard run that came in the wake of Sabby Piscitelli's 84-yard interception return.

No sooner did the Bucs seemingly take control of the game, though, than the Raiders came back to take the lead back, scoring touchdowns on successive offensive plays midway through the fourth quarter. The first score, which was set up by a pass interference penalty charged to Will Allen at the Bucs 12, came on a 15-yard Russell to Higgins pass with 9:53 to play, cutting the Bucs' lead to 24-21.

The second, which came after the Bucs were stopped on a fourth-and-4 try at the Oakland 33, came on a 67-yard touchdown run by Bush, who broke tackle attempts by Kevin Carter and Jovan Haye before breaking free to give the Raiders' a 28-24 lead. Sebastian Janikowski's 25-yard field goal extended the Oakland lead to 31-24, and the Bucs' last-ditch effort to force overtime ended on a sack of Garcia near midfield with nine seconds left.

Roy Cummings, The Tampa Tribune 29 December 2008