Head Coach Jon Gruden expects his team to prepare in the same manner this week as they do for every game
For the last 10 games, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have all but alternated wins and losses, going 5-5 after an 0-3 first month. Even the team's two-game winning streak in the middle was broken up by the bye week.
At times, the 2004 season has been a rollercoaster of teases and letdowns. A 35-3 dismantling of the 49ers is followed immediately by a lost opportunity at Carolina, a game doomed by three missed field goals. A heady rebound against the Falcons – a 27-0 shutout of a first-place team, no less – builds confidence for a strong effort at San Diego that goes awry on a fourth-quarter turnover.
Joey Galloway returns and John Wade goes down. Simeon Rice gets hot but Anthony McFarland gets hurt. The penalty problem is apparently slain, only to rear up again in California.
It all left Head Coach Jon Gruden searching for the right word on Monday and going back to the one he broke out two weeks ago, after a last-minute loss at Carolina.
"It is like I said a couple of weeks ago…I can't remember the word I used . . . maddening," said Gruden. "It is maddening. I love the game. I love our players. We're not alone in this state of depression. It is temporary. We have to fight our butts out of this and by God, do it. We're going to do it."
The Bucs rolled up a season-high 436 yards against one of the league's better defenses on Sunday, once again showing the explosive possibilities of the team's offense when quarterback Brian Griese is surrounded with such weapons as Michael Clayton, Joey Galloway, Joe Jurevicius and Michael Pittman. The Buccaneer defense recorded three takeaways and two sacks against the Chargers, giving them 19 and 31 in those two categories over the last eight games. But 12 penalties for 111 yards and one very fateful interception in the fourth quarter – LB Donnie Edwards scored the game-winning points on a 30-yard return of his second pick of the day – left the Bucs feeling as if they had lost another game they should have won.
In a way, it feels a lot like 2003, when the Bucs started their Super Bowl title defense with a dominating win at Philadelphia only to see the season slip to 7-9 under the weight of endless injuries and a couple crucial miscues.
"It is much like last year," Gruden agreed. "I lost a lot of hair and lost a lot of sleep last year. I love football. I am not going to change. I think we missed eight field goals on the road this year. I don't know what the deal is with that, but we have missed eight field goals on the road. We've had a couple of interceptions run back for touchdowns."
On the other hand, Gruden is fond of saying that he is not a 'deep and philosophical individual,' his way of saying that some matters aren't necessarily helped by days and weeks of hand-wringing. He admitted to finding the Bucs' 5-8 season, one hurt by narrow misses against Seattle, Denver, St. Louis, Carolina and now San Diego, frustrating when pressed to contemplate it at his Monday morning press conference. After that meeting with the press, however, Gruden was prepared to roll up his sleeves and, along with the rest of the team's coaches and players, begin preparing to take on New Orleans next Sunday.
"We are going to do everything we can to win this game," said Gruden. "It will be, hopefully, our fifth game in a row that we win at home. It won't be easy. The Saints are showing a lot of grit, determination and character themselves."
The Bucs are in a very tough playoff situation after sustaining their eighth loss, but this situation is perhaps not as bleak as one would suspect with a 5-8 team. There are still very meaningful games to be played over the next few weeks, but even if the Bucs had already been eliminated it wouldn't alter their approach to the next game on the schedule.
"The focus doesn't change," Gruden insisted. "You've got to practice and prepare for every game with the same intent, and that's to win. We've got to take a good look here at our roster, see who's healthy, what adjustments need to be made and obviously do everything we can to prepare extremely well and try to win our fifth straight home game."
As Gruden noted, the Bucs have won their last four home games, and most of them handily. The combined score of those four wins over Chicago, Kansas City, San Francisco and Atlanta was 115-41 in favor of Tampa Bay, and the Bucs haven't allowed a touchdown in their last nine quarters of play at Raymond James Stadium. Those numbers are encouraging, but they won't blind the Bucs to the fact that the Saints present a significant challenge on Sunday. New Orleans has won its last two games at Raymond James, in fact.
"The Saints are coming off a big impressive win in Dallas yesterday," said Gruden. "I believe their record is that of ours. We've got to be ready to go."
The Bucs left San Diego with a fairly lengthy injury list but, like last week, it does not appear as if the lineup will be seriously threatened by game time.
Gruden identified five players who finished Sunday's game with ailments of some sort, but seemed confident that each one would play against the Saints.
Starting right tackle Kenyatta Walker has a left leg bruise and might miss some practice time but is expected to be probable on the injury report, which comes out Wednesday. The same holds true for starting tight end Ken Dilger, who is working through sore ribs on the right side. The Bucs' second-string tight end, Will Heller, could also be limited on the practice field due to a sore left hip; however, if the injury shows nothing remarkable on the X-rays Heller received Monday morning, he should be cleared to play on Sunday.
Safety John Howell rolled his right ankle on a kickoff return in the first half in San Diego and was replaced by rookie Will Allen for the rest of the game. Howell's injury has been called a sprain, but Gruden said that he expected Howell to play on Sunday. However, he might relinquish his starting spot anyway if Jermaine Phillips also returns.
Howell has started the last four games at free safety in place of Phillips, who suffered a right forearm fracture a month ago and had to undergo corrective surgery. Phillips is likely to debut as questionable on Wednesday's injury report and Gruden hopes he'll be available on Sunday.
One player who was not included on Gruden's Monday-morning list is wide receiver Joey Galloway, who missed the second half of the fourth quarter in San Diego due to cramping in both legs. Galloway has battled several leg injuries this season, but he has nine catches for 141 yards and three touchdowns over the last two games. Gruden felt Galloway's absence during crunch time on Sunday and hopes he won't have to do so again this Sunday.
"Unfortunately, he was unable to finish the game and we missed him," said Gruden. "I really think this guy is different. He can run. I think the lingering hamstrings and whatnot that he has had all season have really been unfortunate because he adds something to our attack that is exciting. We missed him yesterday in the last seven or eight minutes of that game quite honestly, but we don't think he will be out of this one."