tampabay.com

Finally, They're out

Bucs lose their third straight, 37-20 to the Panthers, but were out of the playoffs even before kickoff.

By RICK STROUD
Published December 27, 2004


TAMPA - They leaned over the guardrails shaking angry fists and shouting words of discouragement at the coach as he entered the stadium tunnel.

On this night, Jon Gruden could have been Leeman Bennett, Ray Perkins or Sam Wyche.

They booed the bloodied quarterback who threw two interceptions and lost a fumble.

After this game, Brian Griese felt like Steve DeBerg, Vinny Testaverde or Trent Dilfer.

Tampa Bay fans were bundled mostly in pewter and red at Raymond James Stadium on Sunday, but they haven't seen a Bucs team this bad since it wore orange and played in Tampa Stadium.

"It's a good thing the electricity works at One Buc Place because we're going to need it," Gruden said.

That's because after the 37-20 loss to the Panthers, the Bucs officially have returned to their dark age.

Jake Delhomme threw four touchdowns, two to Pro Bowl receiver Muhsin Muhammad, to hand the Bucs their most lopsided home defeat in 63 games.

The third consecutive loss dropped the Bucs to 5-10, their first season with double-digit losses since 1996.

Pound the rock? Try rock bottom.

"I make no excuses. I don't like where we are," Gruden said. "We've got a long way to go.

"I don't like the feeling of being knocked on my you know what. I don't think our players do. But no matter what anybody tells me, I'm going to learn from this experience. And I realize there will be plenty of critics, and bring it on. I'm really confident we'll find a way out of the darkness. It's not going to be easy."

If the Bucs want to find the road back from ruin, they should follow the Panthers.

Carolina (7-8) needs a win against New Orleans next week to become the first team to start 1-7 and reach the playoffs.

The Bucs were eliminated from the postseason before they took the field Sunday when the Saints defeated Atlanta. Not that Tampa Bay needed any help.

Delhomme completed 19 of 24 passes for 214 yards. His favorite target was Muhammad, who caught eight for 115 yards and two scores, including a one-handed snatch over cornerback Brian Kelly for a 7-0 lead.

"(Delhomme) was hot," Kelly said. "For a while, I don't think he threw many incompletions."

Griese had his moments as well. But while the Panthers offense was balanced with Nick Goings rushing for 127 yards on 33 carries, the Bucs put the game on their quarterback.

The Bucs rushed for only 46 yards, and Griese went 30-of-41 for 321 yards and three touchdowns, two to rookie Michael Clayton. But he could not avoid the turnover bug that has bitten him during the past three losses.

On the Bucs' second possession, he forced a pass to Clayton that was intercepted by safety Colin Branch at the Carolina 45. That led to Muhammad's first touchdown.

After his scoring toss to Joey Galloway cut the Panthers' lead to 30-20, Griese's pass to running back Michael Pittman was tipped and intercepted by tackle Kindal Moorehead, who returned it 17 yards for the clinching touchdown with 4:41 left.

In between, Griese botched a handoff to Pittman that resulted in a fumble.

"I'd like to have that first pick back, but that's the only ball I'd really like to have back," Griese said. "It's unfortunate. You go through games like this and throw the ball 40 or 50 times ... and throw three touchdowns and win the game, and it's just chalked up to, "He's trying to make plays.' But when you lose, you've got to look at yourself critically and say what can I do better; what reads can I make better?"

The 17-point defeat was the worst for Tampa Bay at home since 27-9 to Detroit on Oct.12, 1997. At the end, Bucs fans cheered when the P.A. announcer mistakenly introduced Chris Simms as the new quarterback.

Simms warmed up but did not play. Gruden said Griese will start the final game at Arizona.

"We're going to let Griese finish this year, and we'll go out there and finish as strong and hard as we can," Gruden said. "And I think to do that, it's right for Brian Griese to get this last start."

It's hard to blame Griese for Sunday's loss. The Bucs had 10 penalties for 77 yards. Punter Josh Bidwell dropped a low snap, and his punt near the end of the first half was blocked, helping lead to a field goal that gave the Panthers a 17-7 lead.

"The ball is a spiral. It hits our punter right in the hands, and we don't handle it," Gruden said. "I think Josh Bidwell has punted seven years, and that's never happened. We might lead the league in - I don't know - first-time happenings this year.

"But by God, some of the errors we've made are simply inexcusable and cannot be tolerated if we're going to be a winning football team, let alone a championship team."

That's what the Panthers look like after their sixth victory in eight games despite season-ending injuries to running backs Stephen Davis and DeShaun Foster, who combined for 1,973 yards and eight touchdowns; Steve Smith, their leading receiver last season with 88 catches, 1,110 yards and seven touchdowns; and Pro Bowl defensive tackle Kris Jenkins, among others.

"They kept their heads high and went with it," Ronde Barber said of the Panthers, who extended their win streak over the Bucs to four. "It's easy to give up on a season, but they didn't.

"If they do make the playoffs, I think it's one of the teams to look out for. They're on a roll."

The Bucs are, too, but they're rolling backward. To at least 1996. The last time Tampa Bay lost 11 games, Joe Montana played for the Chiefs and DeBerg started the season at quarterback for the Bucs.

"I know there's going to be some sickness in the locker room. Hell, I'm sick myself," Gruden said. "I'm not going to be one that's ever going to get accustomed to losing. I don't want to be around that type of attitude, that type of environment.

"There's a lot of work to be done. And we're going to continue to work hard, and we're going to find the right combination of guys to return this football team to where it needs to go. I can assure you of that."