TAMPA - When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers entered December on a four-game winning streak and 9-3 overall, it was easy to get lost in the possibilities. They were headed to Carolina for that Monday night showdown, and everyone was talking about division championships and first-round byes.
The playoffs were a given. No team starts 9-3 and misses the playoffs.
But there were warning signs even then that these Bucs were deceiving. Three of their wins during that streak came against Seattle, Kansas City and Detroit, teams that finished a combined 6-42. They had to come from way behind in two of those games and needed overtime to beat the Chiefs.
Let us also not forget that the Bucs lost at Dallas, which was playing backup quarterback Brad Johnson. Think about that for a second. We can't say for sure what would have happened had the Bucs won that day, but we can say without hesitation that 700-year-old Brad Johnson helped keep the Bucs out of the playoffs.
So what do we really have here?
We'll all talk about the monumental collapse down the stretch that will keep the Bucs home for the postseason, and we should, but how good was this team in the first place?
Obviously, not nearly as good as it seemed.
"If you would have told me 9-3 going into the last quarter of the season with this team, no one could have put anything in my mind to tell me we couldn't finish. That's what we're known for. That's what we're built on," linebacker Derrick Brooks said. "That's what we talk about from the first meeting in March. Head coach Jon Gruden preaches finishing, and for us not to do it, I'm really apologizing because I don't have the words to explain why we were not able to do it."
True enough. At 9-3 and with two games at home against sub-.500 teams (San Diego came in 6-8), you'd think the Bucs could have figured out a way to win at least once. Illusion or not, they should be preparing for the playoffs this morning.
Instead, we were left to look around that locker room after Sunday's debacle and wonder just who will be sitting there in September.
We know Monte Kiffin won't. Even though Raheem Morris is a popular pick to succeed the legendary defensive coordinator, it won't be the same. It shouldn't be the same, either, as we all saw in that final month. An upgraded pass rush, coupled with a run-stuffer or two, has to be a priority.
Second-year defensive end Gaines Adams just hasn't developed as quickly as you would expect for a first-round pick; he certainly hasn't come close to being the next Simeon Rice, like some predicted when the Bucs drafted him. Cornerback Aqib Talib showed flashes this season but lacked consistency.
Offensively? Well, where do we start?
How about at quarterback, where trotting Jeff Garcia and his cast of graybeards out there next year simply won't do? True, he was one of the Bucs' best weapons at times this season, but that's only because they don't have many. His scrambling kept plays alive but also exposed his aging body to more hits, and his lack of arm strength was maddening at times.
The answer is not to sign another 30-something relic through free agency. If the determination is that Luke McCown can't do the job and young Josh Johnson is two or more years from being ready, then get serious about the position through either trades or free agency. Find a young guy and develop him.
There is no other way.
The Bucs can't fall behind the bromide that draft picks are too valuable to deal, not when they squandered a second-round pick on a gimmick named Dexter Jackson who rarely was even activated.
We saw how they missed running back Earnest Graham down the stretch. With the sickening injury to Cadillac Williams against the Raiders - life really isn't fair sometimes - finding an impact running back this winter has to be a top priority too. Look at the NFC South playoff teams. Carolina has DeAngelo Williams, and Atlanta has Michael Turner. One was drafted, the other was a free agent.
Go either route, Bucs, but find someone.
Heaven help this team if receiver Antonio Bryant goes elsewhere as an unrestricted free agent. The Bucs have a lot of players eligible for free agency, actually, and the fact that several chatted openly last week about wanting to test the market and rake in big dollars shows a high level of discontent in the locker room.
It also shows that the focus wasn't entirely on Oakland in a game the Bucs needed to have a chance at making the playoffs. That's on Gruden.
When events turn as dramatically as this, a complete overhaul is in order. Like I said, there were warning signs this team was never as good as its record showed. Now we have proof. No more illusions about players, coaches, front office.
No illusions about anyone.
Get some dynamite, find a plunger, and get to work.
Joe Henderson Columns