It might surprise some to learn which receiver led the Bucs in touchdown receptions this season. It wasn't Mike Williams, Arrelious Benn or even TE Kellen Winslow.
Backup WR Dezmon Briscoe, who caught two touchdowns Sunday, finished the season with a team-high six receiving TDs, giving him something to build on for 2012.
"They always expect me to go out there and make plays and do what I do," said Briscoe, who started for an injured Benn (neck). "That's just a credit to my work ethic and my receivers coach (Eric Yarber) as well. I never want to put bad stuff on film. I always go out there and put in effort on every play."
On a day when the effort of many players could have been questioned, Briscoe caught eight passes for 53 yards, with touchdowns of 2 and 5 yards.
The second-year player out of Kansas continued to work the middle of the field, catching a pass in the back of the end zone for the Bucs' first touchdown. He caught the touchdown after running a quick slant out of the slot position on the offense's left side. His second touchdown was just a quick throw and catch, also in the middle of the field, with Josh Freeman throwing the ball just over the reach of Falcons S James Sanders.
. Bucs QB Josh Freeman was faced with trying to rally from yet another early deficit, trailing 42-0 in the second quarter in what had become the biggest first-half deficit the Bucs had seen this season. Freeman couldn't lead the Bucs out of the hole, and he had another mixed day. He threw for 274 yards and completed 69 percent of his attempts (31-of-45), but he also threw three more interceptions and finished the season with a career-high 22. It's been a season full of frustration but also one filled with lessons. "Obviously it wasn't the season we wanted to have for any of us, but you have to sit back and look at it from a different perspective," he said. "You have to see it one play at a time rather than pressing too hard at times. I tried that road this year a number of times, tried to make plays when the plays weren't there to be made, and it ended up costing us games. I have to sit back and figure out what I can do better to be a better quarterback and be a better leader for this team." At times Sunday, Freeman wasn't the culprit. The third-year QB was under significant pressure much of the day, and one of his interceptions came as a result of more failed execution from his teammates. On a second-quarter attempt to RB Kregg Lumpkin, Freeman threw over the middle where he thought Lumpkin was headed — until Lumpkin was leveled by TE Kellen Winslow, who collided with him. "That's a play that we repeated in practice," a frustrated Freeman said. " … It's all about understanding the game plan and what we have to do. We have to come out and execute. It starts on Monday when we put in the game plan."
The Bucs entered the season optimistic about their offensive line, the team's most veteran unit. But the way the group finished the season, it's reasonable to have questions going forward. Continuing a recent trend, the line struggled in Sunday's game, its troubles compounded by the Falcons' ability to make the line one-dimensional with a sizable lopsided, early deficit. • That, too, had been a trend. • "It would have been nice to finish a little stronger, but I think the situation we were put in — always passing, no balance — those guys were just teeing off on us," C Jeff Faine said. "It's been a tough go. I thought for the amount of passing attempts we had, we did a decent job protecting. Obviously we gave up some sacks (two) and some pressures at the end, but with the position we were put in, we had to throw, and in the position we've been in, it's been tough sledding." • LT Donald Penn agreed, but he predicted improvement. "I've been getting killed for how I played down the stretch, but it's tough when you're passing the whole time and you're going against good defensive ends who know you're passing. It's my job. I love to do it and I have to get better at it. I can sit here and talk about all these young guys, but I'm sitting back this offseason and I have to rethink everything. I'm not happy with the way I ended the season. I have to better myself. When I'm put in that position, I have to handle it."
. Connor Barth's 41-yard field goal was his 26th of the season in 28 attempts, a franchise-best 92.9 success rate, passing Steve Christie (85.2) for best percentage in a single season. He made his final 15 kicks of the season, the longest current streak in the league.
. Rookie S Ahmad Black's fourth-quarter fumble recovery was the first of his career.
. With two TD receptions Sunday, Dezmon Briscoe became the first Buccaneer to have multiple touchdown catches in a single game this season.
. CB Elbert Mack's 40-yard interception return for a touchdown was the team's fourth defensive TD of the season.
. Whether Ronde Barber distinguished himself during 15 seasons is not a subject that is up for debate. The only question now is whether the Buc great plans to come back and play cornerback for Tampa Bay in 2012.
After leaving Sunday's game at halftime because of a right forearm injury, Barber conceded that this might be the end. And, with the Bucs losing another lopsided game and falling to 4-12 on the season, it's not the potential victory tour Barber had dreamed of.
"I want to go out like Michael Strahan," Barber joked, referencing the former Giants defensive end who won the Super Bowl in his final game. "Ideally, that's how you want to do it. Unfortunately, it doesn't ever work out that way, except for him. I don't know if this is the last chapter. Perhaps it is, but maybe not. I'd much rather prefer having something to celebrate instead of something to lament. And this season is definitely not the best to remember."
Barber, 36, reached another landmark Sunday, playing in his 225th game and passing Derrick Brooks for the most in franchise history. It was Barber's 199th consecutive start, the NFL's longest streak among active players.
Even at this stage of his career, it irked Barber to have to sit on the sideline in street clothes during the second half. He had left the game to get treatment for his injury during the first half but returned after a brief absence. Ultimately, coach Raheem Morris had to tell him to sit out.
"In 15 years in the league I've never done that," Barber said of leaving a game because of an injury. "But with the game out of hand and me pretty significantly (injured), it just didn't make any sense. Raheem told me I was done (and let) some of these young guys get some playing time. It's frustrating. I always tell you I hate watching other people do my job."
Will Barber do the job ever again? He already has said Morris' fate will affect his decision. That's something he can't control.
"There's a lot of things that will go into that decision," he said. "I think the best thing to do with 2011 is throw it in the scrap heap with 2009 and see where that takes me. I don't know what's going to weigh in that decision."
. When the Bucs learned that S Tanard Jackson's yearlong substance abuse-related suspension had been lifted by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, the news was most encouraging for a defense that had just lost Cody Grimm to a season-ending knee injury. And in Jackson's first game, he recorded an interception of the Saints' Drew Brees that helped Tampa Bay pull off an upset. But Jackson's play admittedly declined precipitously during the second half of the season, and he vowed to be much improved in 2012.
"I can definitely be a different player," Jackson said. "This is a big offseason for me. It's a huge offseason actually. I plan to take this time to better myself and help this team win next season."
Jackson's play Sunday was emblematic of his subpar season. The first quarter provided two vivid examples. On one, Jackson misjudged a deep throw by the Falcons' Matt Ryan that Jackson should have intercepted. He leaped too early and failed to drop deep enough, enabling WR Roddy White to come down with a 23-yard reception that moved the ball into Tampa Bay territory. Later in the quarter, with Jackson providing deep help to CB E.J. Biggers against WR Julio Jones, Jackson leaped to take the ball out of the air, but the rookie Jones outfought him for the ball. Deemed untouched by officials, Jones got up off the turf and outran Biggers to the end zone to complete the 48-yard scoring play.
Jackson battled a hamstring injury for most of the 10 games he played, which might have been a product of being out of football shape after the long suspension. Jackson's contract was extended after that game against the Saints in October, but if he wants to play out the contract, he'll have to improve.
"We're all hurt at this point in the season," he said. "But I was out there, so that's that. But I don't want to talk about what we could have done or what I should have done. It's all over now. It's about using this offseason as motivation to not have this feeling again."