Good riddance, '06
Rick Stroud, The St.Petersburg Times, published 1 January 2007

If you are looking to make sense of a Bucs season that died way too young, it helps to listen to some familiar voices deliver the eulogies. In a mostly somber locker room after Sunday's 23-7 loss to the Seahawks, the talk was about looking forward to the New Year. The players counted on for so many seasons to define success for the Bucs were left to describe the failure of a 4-12 record - the worst since 1991.

"You think I'm not embarrassed after the worst season of my career? I'm very embarrassed," linebacker Derrick Brooks said. "But what's the use of sitting up here and crying about it? We got what we deserved. We had 16 opportunities, and we took advantage of four."

Cornerback Ronde Barber, the only Bucs player invited to the Pro Bowl in Hawaii, called the result "unacceptable." "With the guys we have here, with the leadership, we can re-dedicate ourselves to being the team we know we can be because this is unacceptable," Barber said. "I don't think anybody wants to go through this again."

In his final postgame news conference of the season, coach Jon Gruden was asked if he would remain with the team after his third losing season in four years. "I plan to be," Gruden said, without elaborating. "Obviously, it's a very difficult time for me and our coaches and our fans. At the same time, we will huddle. We will regroup, and we will come up with the answers to your questions. But you are not going to find out all those answers tonight."

Speaking of endings, the Bucs couldn't even get that right. With fullback Mike Alstott most likely playing the final game of his 11-year career, Tampa Bay blew several scoring chances and allowed the Seahawks to grind out 28 first downs and sit on the ball for the final 9:33. Alstott, who tearfully hugged teammates before pregame introductions, finished with 4 yards on six carries and lost a fumble.

The Bucs trailed 23-7 but had first and goal at the 4 with 10:25 left. Alstott's number was called on first down, and he gained 1 yard. But he sat on the sideline for the next three plays while quarterback Tim Rattay fired three incompletions - amid a chorus of boos. The Bucs - and Alstott - did not touch the football again.

"Eleven years go into the head. The feelings, the electricity and the excitement the crowd brings me is indescribable," Alstott said. "Walking off the field with my family just now was indescribable. I would just like to say thank you to all of them for all those years. It's been great, and I appreciate every moment of it."

The Bucs now go about the job of rebuilding a franchise. Under Gruden, the offense scored the fewest points of any Tampa Bay team since 1977, the final season of the 14-game schedule. Barring an unforeseen change of heart by the Glazer family, Gruden and general manager Bruce Allen will have at least one more chance to get it right and the resources to do it with.

Tampa Bay will own the third or fourth overall pick, depending on a coin flip with the Browns. And by acquiring a second-round pick from the Colts for Anthony McFarland, the Bucs will have four of the top 68 picks in the draft. The Bucs also will be at least $25-million under the salary cap and could be more by releasing veterans such as Simeon Rice. "We'll see how good they are at doing their job," Barber said of the front office. "I'm a player. I'll be here in the offseason getting better with whoever is here."

Brooks said he will take the next four to six weeks off to recharge and bury the 2006 season. "I'm going to force myself to get away and let guys grow up," Brooks said. "A lot of rookies played this year, and they grew up playing the game. Now I've got to let them grow up. I can't smother them. I've got to force myself to take my hands off and let them grow up in this offseason program and get better away from football. That's going to be hard to do because I want to start seeking answers right now."

According to Gruden, the Bucs' problems were on the horizon as soon as they won Super Bowl XXXVII in January 2003. "When we won the championship, the difficulty you see through the windshield," he said. "You see the storm coming. I'm not going to be a novice up here and act like we didn't have horrific problems ahead of us. We had to let go of some great players. The salary cap is a law and a regulation you have to live by in this league. If you don't have the draft picks to recoup the players, you're losing. I'm not making any excuses. Jon Gruden is a 4-12 coach and ticked off about it."

He's not alone. So are Brooks and Barber and Alstott. They believed they deserved better on New Year's Eve. For auld lang syne. "This is the worst," Barber said. "The true measure of your greatness as a team, when it's all said and done, is how you come back from seasons like this. We'll see how we come back."