From last place to division title? Bucs hope so

With a win, Tampa Bay can earn a playoff spot and the NFC South crown after a dismal 2006.

By RICK STROUD, Times Staff Writer
Published December 16, 2007

TAMPA - Shortly after the final practice of the week, Jon Gruden strolled across the three emerald practice fields toward his office at One Buc Place.

With each step Gruden took, the first goal of the season seemed to draw nearer.

"Get me a ticket," he said. "I want to be in the tournament because it's single-elimination. And no matter what you say, when you get in the tournament, everybody acts differently. The fans act differently, the whole deal is different.

"Some guys play better in that situation, some guys don't. In a single-elimination tournament, to me, that's what it's all about."

The Bucs can punch their ticket to the playoffs today, with a win over the Falcons clinching the NFC South title.

Division titles are hard to win in the NFL. In Tampa Bay, they are as rare as snowflakes.

Consider that in 31 previous seasons, the Bucs have won only five division titles - two under Gruden (2002 and 2005), two under John McKay (1979 and 1981) and one under Tony Dungy (1999).

Gruden is gunning for his third in six seasons with the Bucs and fifth overall since 2000. Only the Patriots' Bill Belichick and the Eagles' Andy Reid have more during that period.

"We haven't done it yet," Gruden said. "We've struggled to win; we've struggled to make first downs in games. We're on the way. We're on the path here. We'll see if we like the spotlight. That's what I'm looking forward to."

Talk to enough players in the locker room and they will say there were times during a 4-12 season in 2006 when it seemed as if this day would never come.

"Oh, it's terrible," cornerback Ronde Barber said of the situation late last season. "Obviously, it's your job, and you do it. But to be out of it with a month left, there's nothing more miserable. You instinctively take on the spoiler role, and there's hardly any fun in that other than just the joy of playing football."

Linebacker Derrick Brooks said he saw signs of the turnaround in the offseason, but it wasn't until November when he thought winning a championship was possible.

"Week in and week out, we started playing more consistently. Other guys started stepping up when guys went down," Brooks said. "Those sort of things and not turning the ball over. So I figured once we did those things, they add up to winning. But I can't pinpoint the game where I saw us (being a playoff contender)."

For players such as quarterback Jeff Garcia, 37, Brooks, 34, and Barber, 32, a chance to play in the postseason is even more precious. Only six players remain from the 2002 Super Bowl team, and they have been aching to compete for another Lombardi Trophy.

"(Winning the division) is not the highest goal as (we enter a) season, but it is right up there," Garcia said. "Because in order to get to that next step, you need to be at the top of your division. ... You have to work for it. This team has definitely worked for it this year. They've proven themselves on the field on a weekly basis, and now it's on to that next step where we need to prove ourselves one more time."

The NFC South has been an upside-down division. If the Bucs clinch today, it will mark the third straight year the division champion has finished last the season before. What's more, the Bucs have a chance to go undefeated in the division, after going 0-6 a year ago.

Wrapping it up today, however, might not be easy. The Falcons have a lot of internal motivation after the sudden departure of coach Bobby Petrino, who abandoned ship Tuesday to coach at Arkansas.

But Gruden and his team appear confident. A lot of that has to do with the return of Garcia, who missed the past two starts because of a lower back contusion.

Garcia is no stranger to this situation. A year ago, he took over for Donovan McNabb at midseason and rallied the Philadelphia Eagles to an NFC East title.

His reward was not being re-signed. This time, Garcia is hoping for a round-trip ticket.

"I was fortunate enough to help a team last year get on top and be a division winner, and I didn't get a job offer to come back," Garcia said. "I'm hoping that after this week, if we do that this weekend, that I have some security in coming back next year."

Bucs division titles

John McKay

1979 1981

Tony Dungy 1999

Jon Gruden

2002 2005