This should be a satisfying, redemptive time for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and their coach, Jon Gruden. They are 5-3 at the halfway point of their season, showing progress after two seasons in which the club floundered and Gruden's once-radiant coaching star had dimmed.
But instead of savoring a revival, Gruden and his assistant coaches spent the past 21/2 days in a desperate search for answers. They're attempting to figure out how to keep the Buccaneers' season from unraveling. The team is reeling, with losses in two straight games after losing quarterback Brian Griese to a season-ending knee injury, entering Sunday's matchup here with the Washington Redskins.
The Buccaneers were dominated by the Carolina Panthers in a 34-14 defeat on Sunday at Raymond James Stadium, and the talk in their locker room after the game wasn't of jockeying for playoff position and making a run at a return to the Super Bowl. It was of avoiding another disappointing season.
"We don't want this to get back to last year," wide receiver Michael Clayton said. "We want this to stop here. We want to get back to playing the way we were playing."
Gruden, now 42, was the young coaching star -- nicknamed "Chucky" during his days in Oakland because of his resemblance to the horror movie character -- when he led the Buccaneers to a Super Bowl triumph in the 2002 season, his first with the team. But the Buccaneers began overturning their roster soon thereafter, saying goodbye to defensive mainstays such as tackle Warren Sapp, safety John Lynch and Super Bowl-winning quarterback Brad Johnson. The club went 12-20 over the next two seasons, the same two-year mark that got another notable football coach with Florida ties, Steve Spurrier, laughed out of the NFL.
Gruden and the Buccaneers appeared to have turned things around when they won five of their first six games this season. Rookie tailback Carnell "Cadillac" Williams looked like Hall of Fame material with a breathtaking first month in the NFL, and Griese was managing the offense well. But then Williams was slowed by foot and hamstring injuries, and Griese was shelved. Gruden had to put the offense in the hands of Chris Simms, a third-year pro who had the talent to impress scouts but never had added the necessary polish to be a winning NFL quarterback.
He still hasn't. In his two starts since taking over for Griese, Simms has been sacked 10 times, thrown four interceptions and lost two fumbles. The Buccaneers lost at San Francisco in Simms's first start, then were dominated Sunday by the Panthers. Carolina put the game out of reach early in the second half when cornerback Chris Gamble scored a touchdown on an interception return.
Gruden said afterward that he and his assistants would consider their options at quarterback but he reiterated Monday that he expected to stick with Simms as the starter against the Redskins.
"He showed growth," Gruden said. "It is not going to be an easy process, but there are going to be some things he did learn from."
Simms said: "My confidence is fine. I made one stupid throw for a touchdown. At the same time, I thought I played better than last week. . . . I hold myself to a high standard. I expect to play better. At the same time, I'm starting to realize mistakes will happen, and you have to bounce back from them."
Simms and his offensive teammates were booed Sunday by the home crowd, but he took the rough treatment in stride. He said he knows his father, former New York Giants quarterback Phil Simms, was booed at times. "It's part of football," he said. "You're losing 24-7, you get booed."
The problem for Gruden at this point is that his options are limited. His backup quarterback Sunday was another youngster, Luke McCown. The Buccaneers obtained former 49ers starter Tim Rattay in a trade with San Francisco last month, and he could end up being the club's best hope. But he's had to take a crash course on the offensive system and was on the inactive list Sunday as the No. 3 quarterback.
Said Clayton: "As an offense, we need to stay together. This is the time when Chris needs us, and we need Chris."
Simms got little help Sunday from his offensive line. Right tackle Kenyatta Walker couldn't contain Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers, and drew Gruden's wrath on the sideline for committing three false-start penalties on the same drive. Left tackle Anthony Davis suffered a knee injury and might have to be replaced in the lineup by Todd Steussie.
Williams had nowhere to run, and managed only 29 yards on 11 carries. He began his NFL career with 434 yards on 88 carries in the Buccaneers' first three games of the season. In the team's five games since then, Williams has missed two contests and totaled only 62 yards on 35 carries in the other three.
"Obviously we are not blocking well enough," Gruden said. "We're not calling the right plays. . . . We're just not getting it done right now running the football."
Gruden said that Williams might not be fully healthy again all season, but he hopes that the rookie still can be productive. Williams, who also lost a fumble Sunday, offered no excuses. He said he felt fine Sunday, and added: "There is running room. We, as a whole, just have to keep pushing."
Veteran linebacker Derrick Brooks said he planned to deliver a hang-in-there message to his younger teammates this week.
"It could be a whole lot worse than where we're at," Brooks said. "I'm going to do my best to get their heads back up and get ready for Washington."