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Playoffs? Uh, let's get real here

By JOHN ROMANO
Published October 17, 2006


TAMPA — As rescues go, this one is missing a fire hose. The raft is overcrowded, the ladder is too short and the bloodhound has hay fever.

In other words, the Buccaneers’ season has not yet been delivered from danger. It remains stranded without food, water or a decent pass rush.

So what, exactly, was accomplished Sunday?

Essentially, the Bucs found a small ration of hope.

(Or, if you prefer, the illusion of hope.)

The victory diverted attention from shortcomings and made you recall how this franchise once had a strut to its walk. It got people thinking that as bad as September looked, there were still pages remaining in the calendar.

And that was the message Jon Gruden was selling last week.

In meeting rooms and on the practice field, Gruden kept after his players. You’re too good, he said. You’ve worked too hard. You’ve got too much to offer.

You are, he intoned dramatically, just two games out of the playoff picture with 12 games remaining.

Never mind that the Bucs were actually three games out of the final NFC playoff spot. Like John Belushi in Animal House, the man was on a roll.

He got the players looking ahead with anticipation instead of dread. Which is no small feat when you know the color of the carpet at the bottom of the barrel.

“I’m not saying we’re going to win 12 straight games, but he’s a mastermind at motivating us and getting us ready to go,” running back Michael Pittman said. “When he said we’re only two games out, it clicked in everybody’s head. It was like, 'Wow, we’re still right there.’ As long as we keep believing in each other, anything is possible.”

So is the postseason really possible? Yes.

But probable? Not so much.

The Bucs do have more talent than a 1-4 record might indicate, which means the possibility of finishing better than they began remains strong. But there are still too many factors conspiring against them here.

For instance, though Sunday’s victory did move them within 2½ games of the wild card with 11 remaining, they would have to pass seven teams along the way to clinch that playoff spot. That means they’re not just chasing one team that is 2½ games ahead, they are chasing nearly half the NFC.

The other problem is the schedule is not getting any easier. The Bucs face two division leaders and two wild-card contenders in the next four weeks. There’s also the brutal Thanksgiving stretch with three games in 11 days.
And, frankly, history says 0-4 teams never make the playoffs.

“To hell with history,” cornerback Ronde Barber said. “You can believe it as much as you want, and you can write about it as much as you want. But you know what? This is the 2006 season and we finally got a win under our belts.
“So we’ll go on from here.”

In the past, Gruden has broken the season into four-game segments. It keeps the players from looking too far ahead, or too far behind. By talking last week about the playoffs in mid October, he veered far from his own philosophy.

Yet it seemed to have the desired effect. It kept the players from feeling sorry for themselves, or from writing the season off as a complete loss.

And now the Bucs have done the one thing that was absolutely critical:

They have given themselves a reason to believe.

“Some teams shut it down at 0-4 and start working for next season,” tackle Anthony Davis said. “Some guys get in trouble, some worry about getting hurt, some flush it down the drain. Not us. (Gruden) is not going to let us do that.

“Basically, he’s showing the kind of confidence he has in what we can accomplish. And we like that.”

Which is why players should probably stop reading at this point. Because, no matter how strongly they believe, the truth is their hole is too deep.

Think back to the Super Bowl season of 2002 when Gruden introduced the concept of four-game segments. The Bucs went 3-1, 3-1, 3-1 and 3-1 that season.

So let’s say they recapture that Super Bowl magic and go 3-1, 3-1 and 3-1 to close out the 2006 season. That means they finish 9-7, which probably won’t get them in the playoffs.

And that’s a best-case scenario.

It’s far more likely that, somewhere along the line, the Bucs have a 3-1 segment, and a 2-2 and a 1-3. And, come January, we’re talking about the draft.

Does that mean this season is lost?

No, but don’t be surprised if a defensive lineman or a safety shows up on ABC with Evangeline Lilly on Wednesday nights.

This is a season still in need of rescue.

And the Bucs are without the necessary flare.

[Last modified October 17, 2006, 06:59:59]


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