TAMPA — Every year, NFL players clean out their lockers the day after their final game, emptying the contents into oversized plastic garbage bags.
It seemed particularly appropriate Monday for the Bucs, who saw their season go from treasure to trash with four straight losses in December.
As soon as defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin chose to join his son Lane in Rocky Top, his defense hit rock bottom.
And, though he has his first back-to-back winning seasons in Tampa Bay, coach Jon Gruden was left to explain the worst collapse of a 9-3 team in 15 years.
"I hate not competing for championships and we're not, so it's not a very good season," Gruden said. "It's not good enough. Again, I feel like this football team, 16 games, had a chance to win every game. We were tied or protecting a lead in the fourth quarter 16 weeks. I don't remember once feeling like we didn't have a chance to win. But 9-7 doesn't feel good when you're not in the tournament competing for a championship.
"Nine and seven isn't a disgrace. The way we finished was somewhat disappointing to say the least. We lost again to some pretty good football teams, we didn't play well enough (Sunday against Oakland) with the lead, and I take responsibility for it."
Gruden said he hasn't spoken with the Glazer family, which owns the Bucs. But he understands the fans' disappointment.
"I'd say they have every right to feel the way they do," he said. "I'm working as hard as I can, and I'll continue to do that as long as I'm in this position."
Making up for a defensive collapse
. Monte Kiffin's 13-year tenure with the Bucs ended on a disappointing note. The defense yielded 123 points and 1,544 yards in the final four games. Clearly, injuries to DTs Jovan Haye (knee), Chris Hovan (knee), LB Derrick Brooks (hamstring) and S Jermaine Phillips (broken arm) were a factor in losing all four games in December, in which they were tied or leading in the fourth quarter. "You don't go 11 games where you don't give up a rushing touchdown, basically, to the final four games where I think three different backs went for 160 yards or more," coach Jon Gruden said. "Injuries took (a) toll on us. We've got to get more pass rush. We've got to get more turnovers." Raheem Morris will take over for Kiffin as defensive coordinator in 2009, and Gruden said he might continue coaching defensive backs. "I embrace that change," Brooks said.
. Coach Jon Gruden said he would like Jeff Garcia to return next season. But Garcia will be 39 and is an unrestricted free agent along with Luke McCown. Brian Griese and rookie Josh Johnson are the only quarterbacks under contract. "I think the NFL all starts there. It's a position that touches the ball every snap," Gruden said. "Jeff Garcia has done some great things here that rival any quarterback that's ever played here statistically and from a won-loss standpoint. We'll certainly do everything to keep him, and we'll see who is available that could come in and help us." Despite injuries that forced the Bucs to play Chris Simms and Bruce Gradkowski, Gruden has mostly relied on veteran passers during seven seasons in Tampa Bay. But he debated the perception that he prefers 30-something quarterbacks and has been unable to develop a young one. "It'd be nice to do," Gruden said. "I think the highest draft selection we made was Chris (Simms) in the '03 season, I believe. We did our best to develop him. We got a lot out of Chris; he did some good things here. He had an injury; he got sidetracked a little bit. We've been fortunate. We had Brad Johnson win a world championship here. We've had some issues at other positions that we've needed to address, to be honest with you. So it's been a little bit harder than it appears. It's hard to find a guy unless you take him early sometimes. They just don't get to free agency."
The draft and free agency
. The Bucs had hits in the draft — CB Aqib Talib, G Jeremy Zuttah among them. But they had misses that affected depth. Second-round pick Dexter Jackson failed as a kick returner and did not contribute as a receiver. DT Dre Moore, a fourth round pick, didn't make the team. "Dexter Jackson is just in his rookie year," Gruden said. "It's a project, to a degree, as a receiver. It's going to take a little time. I hate to just slam the book on Dexter Jackson today. … We've had some really good picks, and we've had some picks that haven't worked out. But I can't name any team in football that has had every pick perform to the great high standards." The Bucs have been at the bottom half of the NFL's payroll list from 2005 to 2008. They were millions under the cap this season. "You don't just max out your cap unless you're logically going after somebody you think is a fine football player who qualifies or has earned that right to seek those kinds of dollars," Gruden said. "But we'll do the best we can to fill the best roster."