Stephen F Holder, The St.Petersburg Times, published 29 December 2008|
Defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin walked out of the stadium tunnel to the parking lot for the last time Sunday, his mind likely racing as he settled in for the ride home. Before driving off, though, he took time to reflect on his 13 seasons with the Bucs, a tenure that ends with his decision to join son Lane at the University of Tennessee.
"I'm sure there's a lot of people right now that wish I would catch the first bus to Tennessee," he said, making light of the defense's December collapse. "But I can't do anything about that. It wasn't a good month. Why? I don't know." It wasn't the way Kiffin planned to go out, with a defense that gave up 386 yards per game in its final four. "It's tough," Kiffin said. "It's one thing to lose and know you're coming back the next year. I get so fired up in the offseason to see how we can do better. But you have to move on. That's part of life. That's what makes you a good coach. You have to bounce back."
Will the defense do that without its longtime leader? "Let me say this: This defense will bounce back," he said. New coordinator "Raheem Morris was a great choice by the organization. I talked to the owners and Jon (Gruden) and Bruce (Allen) and they're all excited. … They're going to do fine. Believe me. I don't need to be here to fix it. They'll get it fixed."
Brooks betrayed by body
For Derrick Brooks, age is a sore subject. But at 35, injuries are becoming more frequent for the Buccaneer great, and Sunday's game provided the latest example. Brooks entered with a sore left hamstring, then strained his right hamstring just before Raiders RB Michael Bush's decisive 67-yard, fourth-quarter touchdown run. As a result, Brooks could be seen hobbling behind the accelerating Bush, who ran past the 11-time Pro Bowl selection.
Brooks also was dealing with sore ribs and hadn't participated in a meaningful practice in at least two weeks, but he defended his presence on the field. "The best way I know how to send a message is through my play," he said. "That's all I was trying to do today, play this game like I do every game and lay it on the line." After the Bush touchdown with 7:16 remaining, Brooks was sidelined for the rest of the game.
The Glazers' take
Ownership, true to form, didn't have much to say about Sunday's playoff-eliminating loss. Approached by two reporters on his way out of Raymond James Stadium, executive vice president Joel Glazer offered only "it's disappointing" before team security stepped in to help usher him away. Officials said Joel and his brother Bryan had a flight to catch.
Out with a bang?
If WR Michael Clayton, an impending free agent, doesn't return to the Bucs, he certainly made an impression in his final game. Clayton scored just the second touchdown since his splendid rookie season in 2004, taking advantage of an Ike Hilliard pick route against CB Justin Miller to run free with a 58-yard pass from Jeff Garcia. "It's a big boost," he said. "It's been a long time since I've scored a touchdown. I've never doubted my ability to get in the end zone. I've always been a guy to play my hardest, and I try to take advantage of that opportunity. Today, I was given that opportunity."
The score was his first since Oct. 15, 2006, when his touchdown with 35 seconds left beat Cincinnati. After making it clear in recent weeks that he is dissatisfied with his level of involvement in the offense, what will free agency bring? "It's an opportunity for me and my family to dwell on things and look back on my time here as a Buc," he said. "I've loved every minute of it. I've learned so much playing under Coach Gruden, but the best is yet to come for me. The way that I play this game and the way the game means so much to me, it's a decision that is going to be heavily weighed."
Picking the pocket
The Bucs continued to have breakdowns in pass protection, with the pocket often falling apart around Jeff Garcia on those rare occasions when the antsy quarterback decided to stay home. Garcia was sacked just once but was under duress on most of his pass attempts. "We're better than we were last year, but there's always room for improvement, and that's obvious," RT Jeremy Trueblood said of the offensive line. "We're not dominating. We need to build on this for next year and see what we can do."
Here's a shocker: The Bucs couldn't stop the run — again. In what has become a frustrating trend that Tampa Bay can't seem to end, another opponent had an impressive rushing performance against a defense that at one point this season was one of the league's stiffest against the run. The Bucs didn't allow an individual 100-yard rusher for the first eight games.
In December, the Bucs yielded 100-yard rushing performances in three of their four games, including Sunday when Michael Bush rushed for 177 yards. Tampa Bay opponents averaged 189 rushing yards in December. "It's a combination of a lot of things," DT Ryan Sims said. "Gap integrity, missing tackles … we have to be stout in there. Why is it happening? There are different reasons. But to be a successful defense in December, you have to stop the run. That's what it all boils down to."
The failures against the run have caused problems elsewhere, Sims added. "If you get a team in a situation where they have to throw the ball, the sacks are going to come," he said. "A big reason sacks are going down is because pass attempts are going down."
Antonio Bryant wasn't exactly in the mood to speak with reporters after the game, but it's clear he was frustrated with the team's inability to connect with him downfield. Jeff Garcia overthrew Bryant on at least two occasions and failed to find him when he was open several times. As it was, Bryant finished with 77 yards on three receptions.
Let 'er rip
P Shane Lechler did his part to make sure Bucs return man Clifton Smith couldn't hurt the Raiders. He pounded the ball throughout the afternoon, leaving Smith frustrated and scrambling for opportunities to run. Bucs punter "Josh Bidwell told me he could hit the ball, but man," Smith said. "And the kicker, too." Lechler recorded a 69-yard punt, but he had competition in the kicking department from Sebastian Janikowski, the former FSU Seminole who sent three of his five kickoffs into the end zone for touchbacks.
The Bucs set a team record for yards in a season with 5,456. The high of 5,453 came in 2003 . The Bucs also had the second-most points in franchise history with 361. Matt Bryant established a franchise record with 131 points. He totaled six Sunday on a 29-yard field goal and three extra points, passing Martin Gramatica's 128 points in 2002. Warrick Dunn's two catches tied him with FB Mike Alstott for third (305) on the team's all-time list .