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Even for Tampa Bay, total collapse was epic

TAMPA

Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Jon Gruden was dressed in black Sunday. Perfect.

Black is for the Oakland Raiders. Black is for funerals.

It was that kind of afternoon at Raymond James Stadium as the Raiders put the finishing touches on the Bucs’ late-season collapse, eliminating the home team from playoff contention with a fourth-quarter comeback that produced a 31-24 victory.

It was one of the worst days in the history of a franchise that knows worst days.

The Bucs became the first team since the 1993 Miami Dolphins to start 9-3 and not

make the playoffs. At least the Dolphins had a legitimate excuse. Dan Marino got hurt.

Sure, the Bucs lost Earnest Graham for the season, but were still on the cusp of a division title, the second-seed in the NFC playoffs and a first-round bye before they started to fold, to collapse.

“Because of the way we started (the season) it’s fair game to use those words,” Derrick Brooks said.

The Bucs defense allowed 116 points and 756 rushing yards during the four-game losing streak. That’s the kind of performance that gets a defensive coordinator fired.

Oh, wait?

How about the head coach?

“I got to do a better job,” Gruden said more than once Sunday.

A coach says that enough times and maybe the owners start thinking the same thing. Especially a coach who is 10-20 over the final four games of the regular season during his seven seasons in Tampa Bay.

The Bucs’ meltdown is inexcusable. Yes, they were beat up. So are the other 31 teams.

But the playoff berth was there. All they needed was one more win. With all the tie-breaking safety nets in the NFL, how do they not make the playoffs?

They finished the season with home games against the Chargers and Raiders, for goodness sake.

And how does a defense that played so well over the first 12 games suddenly become the Detroit Lions?

Maybe Monte Kiffin’s leaving was a bigger distraction than anyone is letting on.

Or, maybe the Bucs weren’t that good.

Remember, they needed the biggest comeback in team history to beat the Chiefs on Nov. 2 and then needed what tied for the second-biggest comeback to beat the Lions two weeks later. Combined, those two teams finished the year 2-30.

If Lions and Chiefs were anything close to being an NFL team the Bucs wouldn’t have raced out to that 9-3 start, they wouldn’t have been sailing toward the division title.

They wouldn’t have dressed late Sunday afternoon for the offseason, offering little in the way of explanations.

“I know that we were definitely capable,” Barrett Ruud said. “But for whatever reason, we didn’t execute well these last four weeks.”

The irony is the offense had the Bucs in position to win each of those games. It was the defense that resembled the Tampa Bay Rays bullpen of yore.

Actually, it was the Bucs defense that resembled the Bucs defense of yore.

When Michael Bush is running through you for 177 yards and two touchdowns, then, buddy, you have problems.

“No matter who writes the story, that’s not a recipe for winning football games in this league,” Gruden said.

So what’s next?

The defensive line can’t generate a pass rush. The secondary allows too many big plays. The tackling was a tad off.

Have at it Raheem Morris.

There are questions to be answered.

Where they too injuried? Are some players getting too old?

Was this a playoff team that blew it? Or was this a nine-win team that happened to get all those wins in their first 12 games?

Gruden and his players said they will take time to review the collapse, identify the problems and correct them.

“We’ll learn,” Chris Hovan said. “We got a lot of time to learn now. We have a lot of offseason.”

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