Down 30-7, the Bucs score three TDs in the fourth but fail on the final two-point conversion.
By RICK STROUD
Published December 21, 2003
[Times photo: Jim Damaske]
Juran Bolden returns a Brad Johnson interception for a touchdown during Saturday's game in Tampa. Photogallery
TAMPA - In the end, the Bucs proved to be a lot like their former general manager.
They didn't finish the job.
Not in their home finale Saturday, when they rallied for three touchdowns in the fourth quarter but failed on a two-point conversion to send the game into overtime, losing 30-28 to the Falcons.
Not at Raymond James Stadium, where they finished with their worst home record in 10 years.
Not in defense of their world championship, becoming the 11th team to fail to reach the playoffs the season after winning the Super Bowl.
And not with Rich McKay high-fiving Falcons owner Arthur Blank just five days after jumping ship with two games left to become the general manager of Tampa Bay's NFC South rival.
Defensive tackle Warren Sapp, after playing what might have been his last home game in a Bucs uniform, summed up the feeling of the day, the week and the season.
"Sick. Sick," Sapp said. "You look at it early in the year and looked at some of the (Super Bowl) teams that hadn't made (the playoffs), and you kind of laughed at it. It's a reality now."
In some ways, Saturday's defeat - the Bucs' fifth by a total of 14 points - was a snapshot of their season. They started slow as cold molasses, falling behind 30-7 after Brad Johnson threw four interceptions during the first half.
They rallied late, rolling up 290 of their 440 yards during the second half. Johnson connected on touchdown passes to Charles Lee, Keenan McCardell and Jameel Cook during the final 11:27.
But needing a two-point conversion to send the game into overtime, Johnson's pass to Lee was batted down by defensive end Travis Hall with 27 seconds left. The Bucs could have had one more chance if they recovered an onside kick, but Martin Gramatica misread Atlanta's alignment and popped the ball deep when he was supposed to dribble it right. Alan Rossum fielded the kick to end the game.
"We're saying it from the sideline, but the translation and the application of what's going on isn't there," Sapp said. "That (typified) the whole season for me in a nutshell."
At 7-8 and eliminated from the postseason, the Bucs have only one thing to play for at Tennessee on Dec. 28, avoiding becoming only the seventh team to finish with a losing record the season after winning the Super Bowl.
"Being at home during the playoffs is going to be miserable," safety John Lynch said. "It's something we haven't gone through in a long time (since 1998). It's something I never thought would happen to this team, but that's where we are.
"I think we made no bones about it. We felt we were a team that could break the trend of recent history and give ourselves a shot to repeat and do it. To not have that, it is disappointing. It's easy to sit back and make excuses and say, "Well, it's hard to do in today's football. There's too much roster overhaul.' You can talk about all the distractions we've had this year. But ultimately, it comes down to the field, and you take pride in that. It is very disappointing."
The defeat was particularly galling to coach Jon Gruden, not only because the Bucs were so ineffective during the first half against the NFL's worst-ranked defense. But because McKay, who fled Tampa Bay for what he said was a brighter future with the Falcons, got one over on the Bucs coach he feuded with for two seasons.
It's hard to measure what impact McKay had on Saturday's game. But interim coach Wade Phillips credited the new GM for a 49-yard pass from Michael Vick to Peerless Price that set up a Falcons touchdown during the second quarter that made it 17-7.
"Rich McKay is 1-0," Phillips said. "He actually suggested that deep ball on the left side. He is a winner, a proven winner."
Meanwhile, Gruden was left to explain another loss at home in which his team did not appear prepared to play. For the eighth time in nine games, the Bucs failed to score during the first quarter. Johnson was intercepted four times during the first half, including twice during the final 1:13. Cornerback Juran Bolden returned one 41 yards for a touchdown. And the Bucs defense was rocked backward on the opening drive by 254-pound running back T.J. Duckett, who finished with 93 yards on 27 carries.
"I'm very disappointed, obviously, in defeat, for our fans, for our players," Gruden said. "We made some critical mistakes in the first half with regards to turnovers. My experience in pro football is when you lose the turnover battle, you struggle to win.
"But I'm very proud of our football team with the character they showed in the last 15 minutes of that game."
The Bucs' 3-5 record at home is their worst since 1993, the second season under Sam Wyche. That was five playoff appearances, two NFC championship appearances and one Super Bowl ago.
"That's something that clearly next year we're going to have to fix," Lynch said. "Great football teams don't lose at home. And when they do, it's very seldom they do. It's inexcusable. It's disappointing, and it's hard to believe because for so long, this has been such a tough place to come and play.
"It hasn't been there for 60 minutes. We've had spurts of playing good football. But you've got to do it for 60 minutes in this league against anyone. Not against the great teams, against anyone or you're going to get bit. I think (Saturday) probably was a microcosm of the season."
In a way, the Bucs might be better off having been eliminated from the playoffs. Gruden has more time to figure out what went wrong.
"We'll talk about all of the offseason questions a little bit later," Gruden said. "We've been hit hard with injuries. We've had some distractions, to say the least, this year. This football team, week in and week out, I think we've lost seven games by a combined 15 to 20 points. There's a fine line between winning and losing. It's a hard lesson that we've learned. Some of us didn't understand that.
"But we'll regroup. We'll respond. We'll reload if we have to, and we'll come back next season better than ever, I hope."