A loss at Philadelphia sends the Buccaneers back to the drawing board a little sooner than expected
Tampa Bay Buccaneers Head Coach Tony Dungy knew he would be holding a press conference on the first day of 2001. It's customary for him to address the media after each game.
The thing is, Dungy hoped he'd be discussing the next playoff game on the horizon. Instead, most of Monday's talk centered around the next eight months, which the Bucs will use to try to make the 2001 season a little bit better than 2000.
The tenor of Monday's presser changed when the Bucs fell to the Philadelphia Eagles, 21-3, in Sunday's Wild Card playoff game. Both by the final score and the second-half plotline, it was the team's worst loss of the season, and thus it was a tough way to go out.
"The finality of the NFL playoffs always hits you when you're a losing team," said Dungy. "It doesn't really matter how far you go, you're always planning to go a little bit farther. When you don't get it done it's a disappointment. You often feel like one of the team's that didn't make it to the playoffs.
"But in a few days, you get over that and try to look at what went right during the year, what went wrong and evaluate from there."
And that's what Monday was all about, even if it was just the first day of the new year. Dungy, his coaching staff and General Manager Rich McKay's personnel department obviously do not have all of the answers on January first, but they'll begin searching for them very soon. And just what does that entail?
"I think we do what we do every year," said Dungy. "We go through our potential free agents and try to get those guys signed. Look at where we need to strengthen and where we feel pretty good, then start looking at the college draft.
Dungy's crew will take a few days off over the course of January, which may be wise considering the bad taste left in everyone's mouth by the lost to the Eagles. The Bucs' coach doesn't want anyone basing decisions solely on what they witnessed in Philadelphia.
"It's always disappointing to lose, but I don't think you can panic and over-react to one loss," said Dungy. "Last year, Jacksonville beat Miami 62-7 and Miami's still playing and Jacksonville isn't. One loss at the end of the year isn't always the end-all. We have to look at the whole season and try to evaluate that."
Dungy isn't completely sure what he's going to find over several weeks of serious videotape study. One thing, however, is as obvious to him as to team onlookers, and just as troubling. Despite a deep consistency in all manners of its preparation, as Dungy values so highly, the team has yet to develop a parallel consistency on the field.
"We've been a team of streaks, and that's good when you're hot and you're coming down the stretch and playing that way," said Dungy. "But we've got to avoid the low points and avoid the two-game, three-game winning streaks. That's something that we haven't done real well. We'll take a look at how we practice, what we do. It may be something that I'm doing. We'll have to look at all of it.
"That's one of the things that I thought would be our strength, that we would be a very consistent team and we would do some things very well all the time. That hasn't been the case for five years. We've been very much a team of streaks. Somehow, we've got to avoid that, because you lose a couple of games during the course of the year that maybe you shouldn't have and it comes back to haunt you at the end."
That issue is doubly baffling to Dungy because the Bucs has been very consistent in terms of the team roster. Most of the team's core players have been re-signed when (or before) they became free agents during Dungy's tenure in Tampa Bay. Still, that issue will rear its head again in just a few weeks, and it will only became more of a struggle as the team remains among the league's elite.
"It's always going to be that way when you get to the point where we are, where you start to get some players that have been Pro Bowls, and you've got a payroll that is pretty close to the salary cap," said Dungy. "Then it becomes tougher juggling that. But hopefully we can get that done and hopefully we've got guys that want to stay here. But, yes, it's tougher than it was four years ago when we had a younger team."
For once, the Bucs didn't get much of a youth infusion last year, when a trade of its first two draft picks left the team with a draft class whose impact might be felt a little more down the road. However, the Bucs approach each April's draft as the most important event of the offseason, by far, and they have been supremely successful in their results in recent years. Dungy believes that is an important trend to keep alive."
"What this system really forces you to do is develop young players," he said. "Because you're going to have a select number of players that you can keep and step up and extend their contracts, you're always going to have to bring young guys into the mix. The teams that can do that can stay at the top, and it won't be that situation where you had a two-year window and you couldn't do it."
Dungy's press conference on Monday was part of a not-too-busy day, actually, thanks to the Bucs' playoff elimination. A short meeting with the players followed, then One Buccaneer Place emptied rather quickly. When the principals come back to team headquarters, the focus will be on 2001. The Bucs are looking for improvement, but the accomplishments of 2000 shouldn't be simply discarded. There is much there upon which to build.
"I thought we showed some heart and character coming back from our four-game losing streak, coming back from a slump," said Dungy. "I thought we did some good things on offense and some of our young guys started to come on and get a grasp of what we're doing. I liked the cohesiveness and togetherness of our team. It's gratifying to get to the playoffs and have a chance to do something special. And I liked working with our guys. I thought we had a team of guys that wanted to win."