LB Derrick Brooks, one of the Bucs' two Pro Bowl selections, participates in a Wednesday practice that pleased Head Coach Jon Gruden
Jon Gruden knows why his players' frustrations have boiled over into the papers, here in the 16th week of a second consecutive difficult season.
"Look at the way we've lost games," said Gruden, head coach of the Tamp Bay Buccaneers. "We haven't lost games in conventional fashion, if you want to be honest. We've lost games in almost horrific fashion. Some games are hard to figure out how we've lost. Fumbling a ball here; a punt return there; a mixed extra point; a blocked kick; a 21-point lead within five minutes…we've lost some games in dramatic fashion. It's taken it's toll; it's a very frustrating issue."
Gruden is as frustrated as his players. There is a general sense that the team, which has gone 7-9 and now 5-9 in the two seasons since it won Super Bowl XXXVII, has a level of talent not reflected in those records. That's difficult to accept, as are the last-minute losses, each of which seems to top the last in terms of their bizarre endings.
Thus, Gruden is neither shocked nor particularly upset by such comments. In fact, he speaks to the players on such issues as often as possible and wouldn't hesitate to take their concerns into consideration. That being said, he doesn't necessarily agree with what was said this week, following the Bucs' ninth loss.
"I haven't seen a lot of lack of effort or lack of discipline," said Gruden. "I've seen a lack of coaching – a lot of those goes on me, as I've said all along. We've got to do a better job in key situations protecting the ball, protecting a lead and converting our opportunities. We haven't done that well enough, and consequently we're sitting at 5-9 oblivion.
"I've talked to a couple of the players – all the players, honestly – and they're very frustrated at the way we just lost another game in a very similar fashion to the way we've lost several. I believe everything is in order here. We know what we have to do to turn this around, and it's up to us to roll our fists up together and get that done.
"The standards are very high here: It's championship football. We want to win a Super Bowl and that's it, period. There's a lot of frustration here right now, and I'm glad there is."
Gruden readily accepted responsibility for the Buccaneers' record, and he also expressed confidence that the team would find a way to solve its problems. In the meantime, he fully expected to some unhappy talk, internal and external to the organization.
"A head coach is going to get criticized," he said. "I'm not the only one who is being criticized. You've got to be able to take the good times with the bad, you've got to have a thick, resilient skin."
He would like his team to take a similarly thick-skinned approach, because the next two games are not irrelevant. In addition to the admittedly slim playoff hopes that still remain, the Bucs could begin their turnaround from the tough times now, rather than next spring.
"All we can do is dwell on it and feel sorry for ourselves and complain, or we can rally around the healthy bodies that we have and try to find a way to win the next game," said Gruden. "That's what we're going to do."
If there is frustration or unrest on the team, it wasn't reflected on the practice field on Wednesday. The Buccaneers face the Carolina Panthers on Sunday, and that rivalry doesn't need any playoff implications to produce an intense game.
"We do have some obvious disappointment in our locker room, but I thought we practiced well today," said Gruden. "We've got a lot of respect for Carolina, what this rivalry represents and what we need to do to win."
The team placed injured safety Jermaine Phillips on injured reserve before the workout, but otherwise is fairly healthy heading into its Week 16 rematch with the Panthers. There was only one player on the Bucs' injury report when the day began, though it expanded to three by the end of practice.
All three players on the Bucs' list are defensive linemen, and all three are expected to play on Sunday. Simeon Rice has a hamstring strain; after practice, Greg Spires (lower back strain) and Chidi Ahanotu (groin strain) were added to the list. All are considered 'probable.'
"They're mostly from the [New Orleans] game," said Gruden of the D-linemen's minor ailments. "Sometimes injuries show up a little bit when you get out and start running around. That was the case today, I believe."
As for Phillips, the team finally decided that he wasn't progressing rapidly enough from surgery to repair a forearm fracture to get him back on the field this season. The Bucs are most concerned with protecting the young safety's future.
"We tried to continue to bring him along in hopes that it would come around quicker than it did," said Gruden. "He's a dynamic young guy, a guy who we have missed as a leader and a playmaker. I think the right thing to do is let that thing heal quickly. He's had some injuries. We've got him ready to go next season."
Gruden admitted to being surprised that defensive end Simeon Rice was not selected for the 2005 Pro Bowl along with Ronde Barber and Derrick Brooks, particularly considering Rice's surge in the season's half.
In fact, by choosing Bertrand Berry, Patrick Kerney and Julius Peppers instead, the voters passed on a man tied for the conference sack lead. Rice racked up 3.5 sacks on Sunday against the Saints to move to 12.5 on the season and tie Berry for the NFC lead.
Or did he?
After reviewing tape of Rice's last sack against the Saints, the Elias Sports Bureau, the NFL's official statistics service, has made a change in the ruling on that play. Instead of giving the entire sack to Rice, they split it between Rice and second-year man Dewayne White.
Thus, Rice now has 'only' 12 sacks, though that does little to diminish yet another outstanding season for the three-time Pro Bowler. One of only two active players with more than 100 career sacks, along with Michael Strahan, Rice already has three of the seven seasons in franchise history of 12 or more sacks. With two more strong games, he could challenge the team record of 16.5 and his personal best as a Buccaneer of 15.5.
Meanwhile, White pushes his season total to six sacks, a total that is also impressive for a player who has started only one game, and who has played much of the season out of position at defensive tackle.