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A 5-7 predicament tests heart

RICK STROUD
Published December 7, 2003

All that was missing from the locker room when it was opened to the media last week were tumbleweeds.

You can identify a franchise that knows it's in trouble by the number of players who run from it.

There was the normal collection of stand-up guys who treated the preparation routine for today's game against the Saints like any other week - Brad Johnson, John Lynch, Derrick Brooks, Simeon Rice, Anthony McFarland, Keenan McCardell, Kenyatta Walker and a few others. Other than that, it was deserted.

But make no mistake, it was a weird week for the Bucs. It has been seven seasons since Tampa Bay has had virtually nothing to play for entering the final month of the season.

"Oh, yeah, it's weird," defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin said. "I don't know. It's been a while. There's no doubt about it, this is going to check you out. It checks you out as a coach, it checks you out as a player.

"I'm good at this, though. I'm just going to tell you: I'm tough. I've been there, done it and seen it. I'm not worried about myself, but I don't want anybody jumping off the bandwagon."

Of course, the Bucs are not mathematically eliminated. As coach Jon Gruden says, the three teams ahead of them for the final wild-card spot "might not win another game."

But even Gruden sounded more subdued than usual. The last time the Bucs were up this creek, they brought a paddle.

"A couple years ago, the players will tell you, we took an oar to Detroit," Kiffin said, referring to a 2001 trip when the Bucs were 3-4. "We went down and got an oar, right before the bus took off to go to the airport to go the plane, I sent Mike Tomlin and Joe Barry down to the boat shop and they got an oar. They took it and hung it up in the Detroit locker room. The oar was a symbol to anybody jumping off the ship now."

Today's game against the Saints is the test. If New Orleans, with running back Deuce McAllister going for a 10th straight 100-yard rushing performance, surges to a lead, watch carefully to see who packs it in.

Increasingly, there is talk in the locker room that many players are complacent, still "waiting for the confetti to fall," and hearing Bon Jovi in their heads from Super Bowl XXXVII.

It's easy to rationalize losses when you can go home, pop in a DVD of the 2002 season and rub your Super Bowl ring. But when you are 5-7 just 10 months later, you discover who has heart.

"Let me tell you something. Everybody in that room that went to a Super Bowl, got that ring at the ring ceremony," Kiffin said. "Great bunch of guys, right? We all loved each other. Are we going to be different now? It's unlikely, we probably aren't going to get the ring again. But let's find out. You all loved each other that night you got the ring. Let's see if that still means something. If it does, we'll go play hard. If it doesn't ...

"I'll be shocked if we quit. I can't speak for everybody. But I would be shocked because there's a lot of guys in that room that have been together a long time. It's got to mean something to them. You find out who your standup guys are right now, who's really going to stand up and hang tough.

"I might go get that oar again," Kiffin said.

ROSTER MOVE: Linebacker Justin Smith was released and 23-year-old Edell Shepherd, a 6-1, 175-pound free-agent receiver out of San Jose State, was signed from the practice squad.

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