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Dim view, and lights out for Bucs

Published November 8, 2005

TAMPA - Now that the season is half over, is it safe to assume the Buccaneers are all done?

They have no running game, no confidence, no hope. The quarterback is on the shelf, the defense is on the fritz and the season is on the brink.

So beat the rush. Go morbid early. Accept that from here, there is no there. And the sooner you give in, the better the beer will taste.

Granted, this is a pessimistic stance for a 5-3 team. In Chicago, they are 5-3 and giddy. In Dallas, they are 5-3 and brazen. Here, they are 5-3 and hiding behind Jon Gruden's scowl.

Seriously, has a winning team ever looked so whipped? Has a team ever been in greater need of a comeback while playing from ahead?

The Bucs have played half their games and shot all of their bullets. They wore out a rookie in three games. They lost a quarterback and, perhaps, a left tackle. And they ran out of answers somewhere during the bye week.

This simply does not look like a playoff team. Not even in the parity-obsessed NFL. Not to point fingers, but the only way the Bucs get a wild-card bid is if someone sells a soul. And Bruce Allen's doesn't count.

Look, I'm not trying to be mean, just practical. Check out the schedule. Peruse the roster. Now please point to any sign of optimism.

Do you see it in the offense?

The one with a gimpy running back, an inexperienced quarterback and steadily deteriorating line? Even when things were going well, the Bucs were not exactly lighting up the scoreboard. Now they are practically impotent. The last time they won a game without Brian Griese playing was 2003.

Do you see it in the defense?

The one that has carried the weight of this franchise for so long that shoulders are starting to sag? Simeon Rice comes and goes. Booger McFarland has yet to prove he is the next Warren Sapp. Derrick Brooks is 32 and beginning to look as if he may be mortal, after all.

Do you see it in the schedule?

The one that has Tampa Bay playing six of its final eight games against teams that appear playoff-bound? Even if you have Disney-like enthusiasm, it is difficult to see more than three victories in the immediate future.

Not that any of this is a shock. Realistically, the Bucs were not a playoff team coming into the season. The salary cap was still an issue. They had too many young players. The good times seemed a year away.

The problem is the schedule fooled everyone into thinking the timetable had been moved up. The Bucs jumped out to a 4-0 start, and it was as if gumdrops were falling from the sky.

You knew it would eventually get rough in the second half, but the Bucs jumped the gun by losing to Vinny Testaverde and the Jets in New York. Then Griese tore up his knee against Miami, and the Bucs responded by fumbling their best intentions in San Francisco.

That's the real shame. Those were games the Bucs should have won. Games, really, that they had to win.

The Bucs were playing bad teams in the middle of quarterback changes and still could not put them away. It remains New York's only win since mid September. It is San Francisco's only win since early September.

So when the Bucs fall short of the playoffs, do not bemoan division losses to Carolina or Atlanta. Do not cry about a three-game road trip in December.

If the Bucs are not playing beyond Jan.1, it is because they failed to build up a big enough lead going into November.

Yes, I realize it is risky business talking so soon of a collapse that has not yet occurred. The Houston Chronicle , after all, was teased throughout October for proclaiming the Astros a dead team in May at 15-30.

But the Astros turned out to be a team with fight in their souls. All the Bucs have shown us is magazines in their first-class seats.

No one has shown much anger. No one has accepted much responsibility. Walk around the locker room and you will find no one who thinks he is at fault.

Not so long ago, the players in these uniforms demanded accountability. They understood obligations. They might have been brash and egotistical, but they accepted the sacrifices that go into winning.

This team still has a long way to go. Both in talent and character. That is what we should be looking for in the final games. Do not worry about the destination as much as the journey.

If it does come to pass, this need not be remembered as the season when the Bucs fell apart in the final days.

Instead, it can be the start of something grand. The first hours of a new beginning. Do not give up on 2005, but keep 2006 and beyond in mind, too.

If it turns out they are going nowhere, the Bucs can still arrive with gas in their tanks.

[Last modified November 8, 2005, 02:15:36]

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