tampabay.com

Bucs brace themselves for an offseason of regrets

By GARY SHELTON
Published January 8, 2006


TAMPA - It will hit them at the oddest of times, the way regret usually does.

One of them will be sitting at home, talking about dinner possibilities with the wife, and the hollow, empty feeling of a lost lottery ticket will reach inside and twist. They will be on a golf course, joking about a putt, and the things that might have been will occur to them, and the remorse will flash back.

A thousand times, the Tampa Bay Bucs will replay this game, and a thousand times they will lose it. At the movies. In the weight room. In front of the television.

Such are the echoes of self-destruction. The Bucs lost so much to the Redskins on Saturday evening, and they lost so many times, that the defeat is bound to linger for some time to come. It is regrettable enough for a team to see a season of possibilities end in a 17-10 playoff loss to Washington; it is worse to realize how much of the destruction was invited.

What if Edell Shepherd had held onto the ball in the end zone?

What if the Bucs had given the ball to Mike Alstott on fourth and everything at the Redskins 18?

What if they hadn't dug themselves a two-touchdown hole before getting to the second paragraph of the game plan?

Lose a game, and this is what happens. The ugliness sneaks up on you again and again, as repetitive and unpleasant as acid reflux. It gnaws and it festers, sometimes for months, sometimes for years.

The Bucs wasted a great deal in their demise. The defense was magnificent, blunting Clinton Portis (3.3 yards per carry), controlling Mark Brunell (a rating of 25.7). No winning playoff team has ever gained fewer yards than Washington did Saturday, a distinction certain to add salt to the wounds of a team. The offense showed enough resiliency, if not enough electricity, to win.

What if the Bucs had managed to even the score at 17 going down the stretch?

What if the offensive line had been able to open holes against a defense that for once wasn't overloaded to stop the run?

What if the Bucs had made it to the Double Jeopardy round in a winning NFC?

The veterans in the Tampa Bay locker room will recognize the questions. After the '99 season, when the Bucs' defensive players were the budding playmakers, as the offense has been this season, the Bucs lost a similar playoff game to the St. Louis Rams. That day, too, the defense had been smothering. That day, too, the offense didn't score enough. That day, too, there was a much-discussed noncatch involving a quirky rule.

How did the Bucs lose this game? Self-destruction, that's how. Going into the game, you knew, I knew, the kid in the drive-through window all knew: The Bucs could not afford turnovers. They lack enough offensive pop to overcome getting in their own way.

So what happens? The Bucs turn the ball over, then they re-turn the ball over. Chris Simms' tipped pass is intercepted to set up a 6-yard scoring drive, then Cadillac Williams' fumble is run back for a touchdown, and 11 minutes into a playoff, the Bucs had spotted Joe Gibbs a two-touchdown lead. As game plans go, there have been sounder ones.

As long as playing What-If remains an American avocation, the locals around here are going to discuss the Bucs' choices midway through the fourth quarter. For all their struggles running the ball, for all their mistakes, the Bucs had fourth and 1 at the Redskins 19.

Yes, I would have run Alstott. If it was such genius for the Bucs to run the big lug on a two-point conversion in the first game against the Redskins, why would it have been such folly Saturday? Bucs coach Jon Gruden, asked about the decision, pointed out that Alstott had run the ball on third and 1. But if we're looking at past performances, don't we have to go back more than one play? If you're hiring for 30-inches-to-go, Gruden's estimation, doesn't Alstott have the best resume on the team?

Amazingly, the Bucs had another chance, and another regret, to come after a one-handed interception by Brian Kelly. On third and 10, Simms found Shepherd in the right corner of the end zone, the same place he had been when he scored the late touchdown earlier against Washington. Shepherd grabbed the ball, fell to his knees, then flopped in the end zone and lost the ball. He was celebrating in the stands as the officials ruled the pass incomplete.

First observation: It was the right call given the rule.

Second observation: It's a stupid rule.

To be fair, it was also a stupid rule three weeks ago, when the Falcons' Roddy White had a catch negated in the end zone. Without the rule on that day, the Bucs probably would not have been playing at home, if at all, Saturday. Still, if a guy catches a ball and takes two steps, it ought to be a catch.

No one will ever know for certain what would have happened if Shepherd had caught the ball cleanly, or if the Bucs had protected the ball fiercely, or if they had pounded Alstott stubbornly. Maybe the Redskins win anyway. Maybe not. The Bucs overachieved most of this season.

Had they given themselves an even chance, perhaps they could have done it one more time.

Then they wouldn't be asking What If. Then, they would be asking What Next.