The latest beating was over now. It was time for Raheem Morris to go.
Here he was at the end of a season, and the end of another defeat, and probably the end of his job coaching the Bucs. Morris walked slowly toward the middle of the field to shake the hand of another conquering coach, as he has done for 10 straight games now. Another crooked scoreboard could be seen over his shoulder.
At that moment, you could not help but wonder.
Is Morris fired yet?
For most of the afternoon, that was the burning question for those who could not find anything better to do than watch another miserable performance by what will be remembered as one of the Bucs' most miserable teams.
It was 21-0 before the Bucs managed a first down, and you wondered if it was still too late for an interim coach. It was 42-0 before the Bucs scored a point, and you wondered if the Bucs might borrow the Falcons' offensive coordinator to see how he looked on their side.
It could have been 62-0 if Atlanta didn't bench everyone owner Arthur Blank had ever heard of, and you wondered if a lucky fan should have been selected to coach the final quarter for Tampa Bay.
To sum up: Is Morris fired yet?
He has to go, of course. By now, almost everyone who is not named Morris seems to agree with that. The question is no longer if Morris should be replaced, but how soon and by whom. Given the 10th straight loss by the never-say-try Bucs, what other choice is there?
He has to go because of this wretched losing streak, and he has to go because every game felt more lopsided than the week before, and he has to go because none of his players seem to be getting an inch better.
He has to go because his defense gave up more points than any Bucs defense has ever given up, and he has to go because losing margins the past 2 1/2 months were worse even than the winless '76 Bucs, and he has to go because, otherwise, the franchise owes an apology to Leeman Bennett.
He has to go because there is no evidence that next year will be any better. He has to go because someday, the team wants to sell another ticket or two. He has to go because, otherwise, the next thing the Bucs might lose is even more of their faithful in Tampa Bay.
There has never been a better case for firing a coach in Tampa Bay. There has never been this good a September followed by this awful a November and December. Once, Tony Dungy was fired after losing his third straight playoff game. Once, Jon Gruden was fired after losing four games in December that kept his team out of the postseason. With 10 straight losses, you figure the locksmiths must be working on Morris' office door already.
Yes, all of us realize that this failure is bigger than Morris alone. Even if you traded in Morris for a better coach — heck, even if you traded him in for the best coach in the league — this team still would not be a contender. The blueprint has been wrong, and the budget has been low, and the team has been young, and odds have been stacked against Morris.
All of that is true, and if Morris had been 7-9 this season, or if the past 10 games included overtime losses and furious finishes, that might be enough of an argument to bring him back. In a league designed around fourth-quarter football, however, the Bucs have not been close.
Yes, Morris could have used some veterans, but on the other hand, when did Barrett Ruud become Dick Butkus and when did Cadillac Williams turn into Barry Sanders?
Here's the bottom line: how do you build an argument for Morris that isn't against someone else, like the Glazers or general manager Mark Dominik or the players themselves? It comes down to this question: Is this a well-coached team or not?
The answer? Not.
To put it another way, what does it say about the Bucs if Morris isn't replaced? That this is good enough? That the staff that couldn't get a team to play hard this year is the perfect one to do so next year? That the team is weary of paying two coaches at a time? What?
No, it is time for a change, time to let another voice try to stress the urgency of this league to the players. Morris gave this team three years, and it gave him three, but in the end, it did not work. Time to look elsewhere.
Until then, a season without answers has been reduced to a single question.
Is he fired yet?