Bucs stagger when it matters the most
Martin Fennelly, The Tampa Tribune, published 13 January 2002

The song remains the same. Now comes the dirge. This was no way for the Tony Dungy era to end, if that is what happened Saturday.

It's hard to think of it not ending if, after six seasons under Dungy, the best his team could come up with is another heartless 31-9 playoff loss in Philadelphia. On a day when they had everything to play for, this team settled for less again. And it might have lost more than it could have ever imagined. It might have lost the head coach. It might have lost the general manager. Shhhh. The Glazers are about to speak.

For the second consecutive season, we heard hardly a peep from Dungy's Bucs on the postseason field of play. They didn't even crack open the story book, much less give us the kind of finish to save the job of a coach they admire.

They were so silent it drove Keyshawn Johnson to talk and talk when it was over, about Tony Dungy, about teammates he wouldn't name but nevertheless accused of not showing up, not exactly an act of courage, not the way for any season to end. But at least it was real emotion. Key talked and talked. His eyes filmed over. “You gotta play, you gotta play, you gotta play.”

At one point, Johnson shouted at a reporter who doesn't regularly cover the Bucs. Keyshawn thought the guy was stirring it up, as if it needs stirring by now. Johnson eventually was helped from the room by Warren Sapp. “C'mon, baby,” Sapp said softly as he gently escorted Keyshawn through the door.

Everything got quiet after that. Deathly quiet. There was almost nothing for Dungy to hang his hat on Saturday. There was no way to show this team was better than it was last season, for the plain and simple reason that it just wasn't. There was no life in this performance.

There was a lot of talk about winning for Tony. We would hate to see what the score would have been like if these guys weren't playing for him. Well, now they can worry about their own jobs.

Keyshawn said he stood up Friday night and told his teammates like it was: They could make the decision hard or they could make it easy. Hitch up your pants and pretend you're Malcolm Glazer. Think about what you saw Saturday. Easy, right?

That is where Dungy and the Bucs are. They threw themselves to the wolves. The Eagles came to win. The Bucs came to settle for less. It was like last season in so many ways. The defense could not stop Donovan McNabb. Again. The scoreboard said the game was close at halftime, but it wasn't. Again. The Bucs needed to attack on offense. They needed to at least show up in the second half. They didn't. Again. How could they roll this game out with everything that was on the line? How can any coach survive that?

You sat there and wondered. You sat and wondered if Clyde Christensen was the silver bullet for Tony Dungy, if he had been loyal once too often. For the third season in a row, you watched this team go without a touchdown in the last game of the season. You watched three field goals. The Bucs always settle for field goals. Always settle for less.

We couldn't think more of Tony Dungy as a man. We knew going in that if he was going to return, he needed to change the way he looks at offense. Saturday was the perfect opportunity. Opportunity missed. Dungy was calm, as always. “We'll be fine,” he said.

He'll land on his feet, probably somewhere else. Rich McKay says Tony Dungy is the coach. But who knows how much say he'll have this time. “It's a tough one for us,” McKay said.

We will find out how tough in a few days. We only know what we saw Saturday. We saw all those expectations in the trash bin. We saw all those Pro Bowlers with weeks to kill until Hawaii. “I think his record speaks for himself,” McKay said in defending Dungy.

The Bucs have come so far under Dungy and McKay. They just haven't gone further. And further matters.

The record is one playoff win in the last four years. The record is 12 straight playoff quarters without a touchdown. The record is a broken record. The record is another bad day in Philadelphia, this one much darker than the last. It was all there in Keyshawn's eyes. It was in a lot of eyes.

In them, you saw no trace of what seemed so close a few years ago. The Bucs seemed on the brink of greatness that NFC title night in St. Louis. They were on their way. There was no end to what Tony Dungy and his team could do. Now there is.