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If this was the end, it just didn't feel right

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By GARY SHELTON, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published January 13, 2002

PHILADELPHIA -- In the end, if this was the end, there was no grand final scene. No showdowns, no speeches, no tears.

Tony Dungy stood on the sideline, the way he always has. His chin was high, his arms were folded and his face covered whatever disappointment may have been inside. In a moment most coaches would be indignant, Dungy chose dignity.

The season was down to its final heartbeats, and the Bucs were about to be shoved rudely from the playoffs, as if the Eagles felt they never really belonged. Perhaps they did not.

When the final gun came -- no, it did not have Malcolm Glazer's fingerprints upon it -- Dungy simply turned and handed his headset to a sideline assistant. He walked calmly toward the center of the field and shook hands with Andy Reid. Then he turned toward the locker room and jogged away from the defeat, away from the season and, perhaps, away from his tenure as coach of the Bucs.

Was this Dungy's last stand? We'll see. The Times reported Friday that Dungy would be fired and replaced by Bill Parcells if his team lost this game. After the game, Dungy said he believed he would be back. General manager Rich McKay said he believed Dungy would be back.

As for the players, they performed as if they had nothing to say.

For goodness' sakes, how bad would this defeat have been if the Bucs hadn't been playing to save Dungy's job?

On a disappointing night that ended an underachieving season, this was the saddest part of all. The Bucs, supposedly, were angry as hornets at the mere suggestion there could be a change at the helm. Then they went out and played as if they were opening the exit door.

Where was that team on a mission? Where was the passion, the pride, the players who would lie down to save Dungy? Certainly, it was not in Philadelphia. The Bucs of 1995 played harder in Sam Wyche's final game. Would you have wanted this team playing for your job on Saturday?

"This organization knows where we stand, and where he stands," a visibly upset Keyshawn Johnson said after the game. "And to play the way we played ... there is no excuse. We have a lot of guys on this team who do a lot of barking and no bite. It doesn't make any sense.

"If (Dungy) is back, he better get some (expletive) players who can play and not lay down. The other guy they're talking about coming in, he ain't going to put up with this s---, period."

These were the closing arguments in the trial of Dungy? According to the players, the roll was to begin here, and the players were going to show all the positives of the Dungy regime. They were supposed to remind you of Dungy's consistency, of his calm in the face of fire, of his record on a franchise that had been left for dead.

Instead, this reminded everyone, even those of us who believe Dungy should be retained, of all the shortcomings of a team that seems to have reached its plateau. For most of Dungy's era, you have been able to say the same things you said Saturday.

Repeat after me: The Bucs didn't score a touchdown for the third playoff game in a row. They cannot throw long. Third and 1 perplexed them. They cannot figure out how to use their weapons. Running quarterbacks wear them out. They cannot block. Once they get behind, they cannot catch up.

And they cannot, absolutely cannot, win a playoff game away from home.

In hindsight, that might be the ultimate shortcoming of the Dungy era. His team never was able to win enough during the regular season to play more than one playoff game at home. Every year, they have to go on the road because they are too darned comfortable with themselves at the start of a season. Eventually, that cost them all four trips Dungy's team made (in six seasons) to the playoffs.

Is something missing? You're darned right. The next round of the playoffs is missing. The offensive game plan is missing. The rest of the season is missing. The answers of why this happened for the second time in a row are missing?

But is something missing with the players? With the coaches? The same list of shortcomings haunt the Bucs every season. Talking birds can recite them. So why can't this coaching staff do something about them?

Certainly, the offense has to be better than this. Is there ever a time the Bucs get the ball and you feel confident they will score? Why run a sweep on third-and-1? Why take Keyshawn out of a game with third and 5 at the Eagles 10? And if there is truth in advertising, shouldn't the rookie tackle's name be Pinata Walker?

It's going to take time, longer than the 48-hour cooling off period suggested by McKay, for the Bucs to get the taste of this out of their mouths. If Dungy survives, even he should realize that it's time to put the offense into the hands of professionals.

Give Dungy credit for this much. Other coaches would have argued their case. They would have suggested the world was out to get them. Not Dungy. "We don't need a funeral here," he said.

It's a shame, because it felt like that. It felt like the end of something, like a final chapter of a book that didn't conclude the way anyone wanted. It felt like a lousy way to say goodbye.

As Dungy walked from the locker room, it felt as if it should have been more.

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