Collapse is complete
Rick Stroud, The St.Petersburg Times, published 29 December 2008

Let's stretch the yard markers and take a measurement of all that was lost by the Bucs on Sunday. By blowing a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter to Oakland, Tampa Bay suffered its fourth defeat in a row, costing it the final wild-card spot. Before the Bucs had even left the locker room after the 31-24 defeat, the Eagles were well on their way to pasting the Cowboys to claim the berth.

Even after consecutive losses to the Panthers, Falcons and Chargers, the Bucs (9-7) had a chance and faced a Raiders team that entered 4-11 and had to travel across three time zones. "It's a catastrophe," running back Warrick Dunn said. "That should never happen. We're too talented of a team."

After the game, the devastation was scattered across the locker room. The Bucs lost running back Cadillac Williams, who tore the patellar tendon in his left knee, the same injury he sustained to his right knee last season and sidelined him for 14 months. They lost Monte Kiffin, who ended his 13-year run as defensive coordinator by watching third-stringer Michael Bush rush for 177 yards and two touchdowns, including the go-ahead 67-yarder with 7:03 left.

The loss meant the Bucs missed the playoffs for the fourth time in six seasons under Jon Gruden, whose teams are 10-20 in December and January since winning the Super Bowl in January 2003. Everywhere you looked Sunday, there was loss after loss after loss after loss. Start with Williams, who rushed 12 times for 78 yards and two touchdowns and had five receptions for another 37 yards.

"We all hold him close to our heart because we saw the road that it took for him to get back on the field," center Jeff Faine said. "For him to go down I mean you almost kind of knew when it happened what happened. It was crushing. It hurt. It almost brought me to my knees just because of the feeling we have for him."

Kiffin's decision to join son Lane at the University of Tennessee coincided with his defense's worst four-game stretch during his tenure: 116 points and 1,544 yards. "It's been such an everyday story, it hasn't helped anybody," Gruden said. "It's not another excuse, but when your quarterback gets hurt, and the question is where is your defensive coordinator at? All those things, they probably have a tendency to mount on some. But I love Monte Kiffin. I hate to see him go out this way."

Kiffin, 68, tried to assure fans the collapse was not related to his decision, saying he has not called his first recruit. "What do I say?" he said. "I didn't write a very good script. I'll put it that way. If I had to do it over again, it certainly wouldn't be this way. It wasn't a good month. Let's put it that way. Why? I don't know."

Derrick Brooks lost a wheel. He pulled his right hamstring one play before Bush's long touchdown but decided to remain in the game. "I can't say it enough. I'm hurt because everything we do, we talk about finishing," Brooks said. "The way we prepare, the way the coaches coach, the way the defense plays. Finish is embedded in what we do, and we weren't able to do it down the stretch. I don't have words. I can't tell you. But I'm hurt myself, and I'm hurt for this football team."

Finally, there were players such as Michael Clayton, who scored only his second touchdown since his rookie year on a 58-yard catch, can become a free agent and probably played his last game in a Bucs uniform. Chief among them is quarterback Jeff Garcia. With two black circles under his eyes from the hit he took last week against the Chargers, Garcia became teary when speaking about his future.

"For me, there are a lot of question marks as to what is going to happen this offseason," said Garcia, who turns 39 on Feb. 24. "I can't even say whether it's 50-50 or what. But if this is my last game as a Buccaneer, I just really want to thank my teammates and the fans for the support that they've given me through these last two years. It's been awesome. It's really difficult to say what's going to happen and if that opportunity (to return) will even be presented."