End Game
Roy Cummings, The Tampa Tribune, published 1 January 2007

The curtain came down on one of the most forgettable years in Bucs history on Sunday. For Jon Gruden and Bruce Allen, it meant one thing: Both are officially on the hot seat. Tampa Bay's coach and general manager will survive not only to see the dawn of the 2007 calendar year, but also the dawn of the 2007 NFL season. Beyond that, all bets are off. Games like the one the Bucs played Sunday are the reason why.

It was another loss, the 12th of the season. But that's not the half of it. Seattle's 23-7 victory at Raymond James Stadium left the Bucs with an overall post-Super Bowl record of 27-38, including the playoffs. Gruden has coached every one of those games. Allen has been here for all but 16 of them. His record is no more glowing than Gruden's. It stands at 20-29, with just one playoff appearance in three years.

That time frame is critical. Considering their team's aging defense and offensive state, three years was the minimum the Bucs' owners believed Allen and Gruden needed to prove their worth as a tandem. That time is now up.

Gruden's isn't, though; neither is Allen's. Not just yet. But it's safe to say their time is running out. Proof of a plan that will alter the Bucs' path may be the only way they can stop the sands from falling. Whatever that plan includes, whether it's staff changes or additions, Gruden wasn't ready to discuss it Sunday. He preferred to discuss the Bucs' latest loss and all that went into this lost season.

"We're a 4-12 team this year, but we had five or six starters sitting out [Sunday] and in a lot of our games [injuries] were some of the key ingredients to the recipe," he said. "I mean, the spaghetti doesn't taste the same when there aren't any meatballs in it. We've got to stay healthy. So I'm mad at Alex Smith and Cadillac [Williams]; I'm mad at Michael Clayton and Dan Buenning. And I miss [Brian] Kelly and [Simeon] Rice. And [Anthony] McFarland is in Indiana right now. So the spaghetti sauce wasn't quite the same this year. As a matter of fact it tasted lousy. We have to do something about that next year."

Truer words might not have been spoken Sunday. Three of the four seasons the Bucs have played since winning the Super Bowl have been losing ones. Making it four out of five isn't likely to sit well with the Glazers. The good news is the Bucs will have a slight edge over a lot of their rivals when it comes to fixing the holes. Their first draft pick, for instance, will be either the third or fourth overall.

And thanks to the deal that sent McFarland to Indianapolis, they'll control four of the first 67 or 68 picks in the draft. They also are believed to have more than $25 million in cap space to use during free agency. "I understand the rules of how you get things done and I know that the playing field is about to get level for us in terms of acquiring players and developing them," Gruden said.

An influx of talent surely will help the Bucs, but it will take more than roster additions to alter this team's path. According to some players who were around during the halcyon days, a change in attitude is what's needed most. "We used to have a high level of accountability around here," Pro Bowl cornerback Ronde Barber said. "That was a big part of what we were in the past and we need to get that back."

It's not the only thing the Bucs need to get back to. They need to get back to playing sound defensively, too. Games such as the one played Sunday, when Seattle racked up 28 first downs, were far too prevalent this year. "Our defensive success usually correlates to wins and we didn't play consistent enough on defense all year long," linebacker Derrick Brooks said. "We only have four wins, and that's part of the reason for that."

The offense has to shoulder some of the blame, too. Though it was ravaged by injuries, it failed repeatedly to get the ball into the end zone. Sunday was just another in a long line of such games. The Bucs moved the ball into the red zone on three occasions against Seattle and only one resulted in a touchdown. One resulted in a turnover and the other resulted in the ball going back to Seattle on downs. The Bucs also missed a field goal - a 44-yard first-quarter attempt that Matt Bryant pushed wide right. But it wasn't as if the offense was given many opportunities to score.

With the defense allowing big chunks of yardage throughout the day, Seattle racked up 344 total yards and limited the Bucs to just three second-half possessions, one of which ended with a giveaway after one play. "We had a couple of opportunities to make plays and we just didn't get it done," Gruden said. "That's a tough pill to swallow when you're playing a team like Seattle."

The Bucs swallowed the same pill while playing teams a lot less formidable than the Seahawks this season. That's why they wound up at 4-12. The reasons for the record no longer matter, though. What matters now is making sure that 2006 is not repeated in 2007; that the mistakes that created this 4-12 finish become the basis for improvement a year from now. Even Gruden admits as much.

"There are a lot of things we can take from this season," Gruden said. "The fact that so many players played, because experience is one of the greatest teachers you can have. And yes we had some bad experiences; but we also had a lot of great experiences. We really did. There were moments when we looked like a good football team and there are things we can build off of. But clearly we have things that we have to address."