DT Chris Hovan (95) and the Bucs' run defense was quite strong in the season's first half before struggling in December
Chris Hovan is a straight-shooter if there ever was one.
During the season, he faces the media every day during the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' open locker room periods, whether the team has just won by 20 or lost in the final seconds. He tends towards the optimistic side of things – maybe having three young kids at home has something to do with that – but he's not one to sugarcoat obvious problems.
So when he said on Monday, one day after the Buccaneers' 2008 season came to a surprisingly early close, that he couldn't quite figure out what had happened in December, you can be sure he wasn't trying to gloss over one of the most disappointing finishes in franchise history.
"I don't think it's fair to say right now," said Hovan, who pushed through a very limiting knee injury in the season's final month. "I'm going to take a week and try to evaluate everything that's going on. I think it would be very brash to come up here and try to give excuses for what's going on, because that's not fair. I think once emotionally I calm down and a lot of the guys calm down, we'll figure out what happened."
There are statistical explanations for the Bucs' fall from 9-3 to 9-7, perhaps most notably the problems on run defense. Tampa Bay was one of the league's stingiest run defense for more than half of the season – they went to Kansas City in Week Nine having not allowed a single rushing touchdown nor a single 100-yard rusher – and perhaps its worst in December.
Why that happened is a bit of a mystery; injuries to Hovan, Jovan Haye, Derrick Brooks and Jermaine Phillips clearly played a part, but some of the long runs given up in December appeared to be more of an issue of gap-fit breakdowns. That's not a normal occurrence in Tampa – it certainly wasn't for almost three-quarters of this season – and it's not easily explained. In deferring his own opinion on the matter, Hovan wasn't trying to escape media scrutiny; he actually invited the assembled writers to call him on his cell phone in a week.
For now, there is only vague frustration, and the remaining belief that the Buccaneers could have done much more with the 2008 season.
"It's just terrible," said Hovan. "The way things ended like that, it's a shame. All of the guys are frustrated and disappointed, but it's over, the playoffs are set. All we can do is get back to our families and get ready for next season and try to cap it off with a championship. I think we have enough in this locker room to go all the way. I do firmly, and I always say how I feel. There is enough in this locker room to win a championship."
The Bucs had hoped to be battling for that championship this January, in a month that will end with the Super Bowl right here in Tampa. When they stood 9-3, tied for the second-best record in the NFC and in position to grab a first-round bye in the conference playoffs, that dream seemed completely reasonable. There couldn't have been many who expected the Bucs to lose their last four games at that point – marking their first winless December in almost 20 years – and miss the playoffs by a single game.
But no matter how the Bucs reached their final record, it is the one that will be saved for posterity.
"We went 9-7 and I have a real strong belief that at the end of year, you are what you are," said Head Coach Gruden, repeating a common sentiment of his. "As a coach, you have to hold hands with that statement: You are what you are. We didn't play well enough the final month of the season. There were glimpses of very good solid football early. We just couldn't sustain it long enough and that is my responsibility."
Much has been made of the Buccaneers' cumulative record in December since their 2002 championship season, and as a whole it is a bit misleading. The team wasn't particularly good overall in 2003, 2004 or 2006. It had a fine 2005 December, especially in big division wins over Carolina and Atlanta. The downturn in 2007 had a lot to do with the team's early clinching of the division and it's almost unavoidable decision to rest a number of injured starters.
The 2008 December was a bad one, though, and there's no denying it. It was not at all what the Buccaneers expected after winning six of seven games heading into the season's last lap.
"Of course, the one main factor is to win in December," said Hovan. "Whoever wins in December has obviously either the home-field advantage or momentum to lead them into the playoffs. December is the crucial month in this business."
One could argue that January is even more important, but as Hovan surely knows, you can't expect to succeed in the new year without taking care of business during the holidays. The Bucs didn't do that in 2008, and they will be looking for the reasons as to why before embarking upon the 2009 campaign.