Optimism is the word
The Bucs seemed to be riding a wave of momentum before facing Atlanta on Sunday. Tampa Bay had won two consecutive games. Not only did Tampa Bay knock off Seattle during a road win, the Bucs also defeated New Orleans, a possible Super Bowl contender, last week.

The Bucs believed they had established their identity. They finally had success running the football. Their defense figured out how to stop the run. They had a chance to become the first Tampa Bay team in a non-strike year to finish the regular season with a three-game winning streak.

After a 20-10 season-ending loss against Atlanta (9-7), and after allowing Falcons running back Jason Snelling to rush 25 times for 147 yards, Tampa Bay (3-13) was left to wonder if it had played well enough to give its franchise hope for a turnaround in 2010.

"It was frustrating because we were playing well for a pretty good stretch," Bucs linebacker Barrett Ruud said. "Even a couple of games we lost, we played well. We just didn't do enough to win down the stretch. This is a little bit the same way (against Atlanta).

"The frustrating part is defensively we didn't stop the run very well and we had been doing that the last few weeks. I think overall, we did play a lot better as the year went out. You got to search for positives when you're 3-13 and that's the one I will take."

It is hard to blame Ruud for trying to remain optimistic. Tampa Bay is 3-17 in its past 20 games. Players were optimistic they were on the right path after last week's victory against New Orleans and hoped to finish 3-1 in their final four games. Instead, the Bucs' only victory this season was maintaining hope.

"We're close," Bucs tight end Kellen Winslow said. "If you look at all our division games, we were close for the most part. Besides the (first) Saints game, we're in it. If we can capitalize on that and win, we're right there. We're right there."

Tampa Bay's other motivation to remain optimistic about next season is the team's effort. Despite losing 13 games, the only opponents Tampa Bay was not competitive against were the New York Giants and Jets. Since the Bucs were close in every other game, players are hopeful that effort will lead to wins in 2010.

"It has been that way the whole year," Bucs cornerback Ronde Barber said. "Even early in the season when things were looking very desperate, the team has always had that toughness about them no matter what. No matter what adversity we faced, we just kept grinding and finding ways to come to work and try to get better.

"I think that's a testament to the character of this team, the coaches obviously. That will pay dividends for us next year."

Anwar Richardson, The Tampa Tribune 4 January 2010