Collapse leaves Bucs on outside
Bury the season at the bottom of the cliff. For the Team That Fell Off a Mountain, there might be no site more fitting. Gather those who mourn them. Have a good man say kind words about things that might have been. Then sigh and walk away, for there is nothing more to see.

For the Tampa Bay Bucs, a four-week free fall has finally ended with a splat. Alas, the franchise, 33, did not survive.

The Bucs lost another in a series of football games Sunday afternoon, but that shouldn't surprise anyone. By now, the Bucs have proved that they are entirely capable of blowing a football game, even games they are leading by 10 points in the fourth quarter at home against a team as completely wretched as the Raiders, a loose bunch of players who have spent most of the season in the unsuccessful attempt of getting out of each other's way.

No, the amazing thing, the memorable thing, the strangely majestic thing about this time was the utter completeness of a Bucs collapse that should go down as one of the worst since mankind invented the ball.

In the end, they were Greg Norman and they were Phil Mickelson. They were the '64 Phillies and they were the '78 Red Sox. They were the Hare and they were Hillary Rodham Clinton. They choked and they gagged, then they flopped and they failed. They were oh-for-December and oh-for-crying-out-loud. They were the incredible shrinking Bucs, and in the end, they backed clean away from the playoffs.

By Sunday's final act, this team had the glassy-eyed look of a team that didn't know what had hit it, or why. Four games ago, they were 9-3, and any question about the postseason was simply how many home games they might play and who might show up for them.

Then the bottom fell out, quickly and completely. One loss was followed by another, and another, and yet another. Almost overnight, this became a team with a bad offense, a bad defense, a bad front office and a bad coaching staff. As for the future? Well, it has some warts on it, too.

When you get down to it, that is the legacy of the 2008 season. Any team can lose a game. This one lost an entire month. Around here, we tend to remember seasons by a simple phrase. The Year They Lost Them All. The Year They Won the Super Bowl. The Worst to First Year. The Year They Lost to the Rams. The Year They Didn't Sign Bo. And so on.

This one? This will be the Year That Got Away. And there it goes, disappearing into the distance.

Even if you think of 9-3 as an illusion, the question remains: Where did it go? In football, in most sports, players like to think of themselves as the kind of athletes who get it done in the fourth quarter or the ninth inning or the playoff holes or whenever the crucial moments are. This one didn't. Consider:

For 12 weeks, the Bucs gave up 16.7 points per game. The past four weeks, they gave up 30.8.

For 12 weeks, the Bucs defense allowed 279.6 yards per game. In the final four games, the defense allowed 386 yards per game.

For 12 weeks, opponents averaged converting third downs only 32.9 percent of the time. The past four weeks, it has been 54 percent.

So what is the truth of this team? If the Bucs were anywhere near as good as a 9-3 record would indicate, they would have made the playoffs. And if they were as bad as the past month suggested, they would have made a run at the Lions for the No. 1 draft choice.

Reality is probably somewhere in between. Reality is probably somewhere around 9-7. Reality is that Sunday's loss just prevented another loss next week, because there is no way on earth this team would have beaten anyone next week, either.

Perhaps that, too, is part of the epitaph. You can say what you want about the past month. It is the future that raises more questions. Tell me: How does next year's team get better? It won't draft high enough for impact, and in recent years, it hasn't shopped hard enough for upgrades. It hasn't developed young players well enough for either.

If that brings the conversation back to coach Jon Gruden, well, shouldn't it? His fingerprints, too, are on this collapse. Gruden is 10-20 in December and January games since leading the Bucs to the 2002 Super Bowl title.

Given that, perhaps finishing out of the playoffs is fitting. Get in, and a team can fool itself. Stay home, and it has to face its shortcomings. At this point, it wouldn't hurt if someone sounded a little impatient. So where does that leave the Bucs? It leaves them on a plateau. It leaves them chasing the pack. It leaves them outside looking in, nowhere to go and nothing to do.

Gary Shelton, The Tampa Tribune 29 December 2008