WR Michael Clayton felt the Bucs were outplayed on Sunday, but believed they kept up their season-long tradition of playing hard
There was a somber mood in the locker room after the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' first-round playoff defeat at the hands of the New York Giants Sunday.
The 2007 season had come to a rather sudden end, but as the players stripped off their pads and the realization dawned that the offseason was upon them, most of the Bucs gave credit where credit was due. The same thought was repeated frequently in the Tampa Bay locker room: The Giants simply outplayed them on this day and deserved their 24-14 win.
Center John Wade began by saying the offense as a whole simply didn't get it done against New York's pressure-oriented scheme.
"The Giants were the better team today," said Wade. "We just didn't go out and get it done from an offensive standpoint. You've got to put points on the board in the playoffs, and we didn't do it. We just didn't play well enough to win. Hats off to them. That's it."
Running back Earnest Graham scored the game's first touchdown as the Bucs actually dominated play in the first quarter. After that quick start, said Graham, the Giants simply outplayed them the rest of the way.
"It's tough to end on that note," Graham said. "We didn't play very well. Started well, but the rest of the game didn't go our way. We flat out got beat, so there's nothing much else to say. We ran the ball well early, then unfortunately we came out in the second half and had a turnover and they got ahead. They went ahead and made plays and they deserve the victory."
After that outstanding first quarter, in which the Bucs held the Giants to negative-two net yards and jumped out to a 7-0 lead, things went downhill. The offense stagnated for most of the second quarter, the defense struggled to get off the field at points in the second half, and some key turnovers killed the Bucs' momentum and hopes of making a comeback.
In summary, when playing on the grandest of stages, the Bucs came up just short, wide receiver Michael Clayton said.
"When it comes down to these games, it's not about coaching, it's about playing," Clayton said, "And it's obvious that they outplayed us today. They were the better team today.
"We just made some mistakes at times and killed our momentum. In a big game like this, you can't afford to do that, but everybody stayed focused. We kept playing hard, we kept making the best out of what we had, and you can't ask for much more."
Amid some long faces and last glances around the locker room, Clayton's words rang true to many of the Bucs. Despite the loss, there was an overriding sense of pride about the team's 2007 season – at least in how the team repeatedly fought through adversity to rebound from last year's poor record and win the division.
Defensive tackle Chris Hovan admitted that while it was frustrating for the season to end the way it did, he was still impressed with the turnaround he and his teammates had made.
"It is [disappointing], but at the same token, going from last place in the South last year to come back to host a Wild Card game, that says a lot about our organization and the strides we're making right now, hopefully into next year," Hovan said.
Graham also considered the season a success, saying he was proud not only of his own rise from third string to leading rusher but also of how many of his teammates responded when called upon.
"It's been a great year," Graham said. "It's been great being around this bunch of guys. Definitely, since I've been in the league, my favorite year, [with] a lot of guys stepping up, doing well. This season was, regardless, a great year for the organization. It's been fantastic."
Veteran cornerback Ronde Barber, a man who's been through plenty of ups and downs and long seasons, came away impressed with a young Buccaneers team that battled throughout.
"I give [the Giants] credit," he said. "They adjusted well to what we were trying to do. But when it's all said and done, I'm proud of this football team. We held in there, and we've got a lot of heart and a lot of talent."
Head Coach Jon Gruden, the man who orchestrated the team's improbable rise from the ashes of a 4-12 seasont, echoed the sentiments of many of his players.
"I would just like to congratulate the Giants," Gruden said. "They are a very good football team, very physical. I tip my hat to them. I would also like to say I am really proud of our football players; they overcame a lot. We lost several key guys today during the game. We hung in there and obviously it's hard to lose. I am really proud of the men that laid it on the line this year and I hope they know that."
As the players collected their belongings and walked out of the locker room for the last time this season, Clayton took one last moment to look back on this year and reflect how far the team has come.
"It's night and day [this season], especially with the leadership that was brought in this year," Clayton said. "A lot more guys [were] being held accountable, younger guys being forced into roles to be leaders. That only makes your team stronger. Going into next year, I have, and I can't speak for the rest of the team, but we have a good feeling about the guys that are on this team and the guys that we can bring in next year."
Even as he looked back, Clayton was already thinking forward.
"The grind is going to come early this year," Clayton said. "It's a big year for a lot of guys on this team and you don't ever want to go home early, but now you have to put it past you and look forward to next year, and that's what we'll do."