If they go, they will go out a loser. Just as they were for 17 of this beleaguered franchise's 20 seasons.
Saving their most embarrassing and most lopsided loss of the season for last, the Bucs bottomed out in their potential Tampa Bay farewell appearance Saturday, losing 37-10 to Detroit in a game that wasn't as close as the score might indicate.
In every way, the playoff-bound Lions administered a good old-fashioned Buc-kicking. And a Tampa Stadium crowd of 50,049 didn't stick around until the end to see what could represent history. Who could blame them?
"This was a frustrating game," said Bucs quarterback Trent Dilfer, who fittingly found himself once again in the eye of a post-game storm. "Obviously getting your butts kicked on national TV in a game that probably meant a whole lot to keeping this franchise in town, which is what the players want to happen, it's embarrassing and humiliating."
With the loss, Tampa Bay clinched last in the NFC Central at 7-9 and extended its streak of non-winning seasons to an NFL-high 13. In dropping seven of its last nine games, Tampa Bay for the seventh straight year wound up last or tied for the worst record in the division.
In what is almost certain to be his Tampa Bay swan song, Bucs coach Sam Wyche went out with a bang _ the sound of his imminent firing, perhaps?
Showing who's in charge one last time, Wyche played a huge role in the debacle, yanking Dilfer in the second quarter and inserting backup Casey Weldon. Dilfer was 8-of-11 for 100 yards when removed. He had thrown one interception and twice fumbled when sacked. Weldon, who finished the game, was 11-of-27 for 106 yards, three sacks and one interception.
Afterward Wyche explained to the media that the move was planned last week, but that quarterbacks coach Turk Schonert forgot to inform Dilfer.
"I apologized to Trent," Wyche said. "(We had) absolutely lousy communication. I had told Turk during the week to just tell Trent that we were going to play Casey. I was just going to put him in. I was going to get him some playing time. It wasn't because of (turnovers)."
Interestingly, Wyche shared his plan to pull Dilfer with Fox TV in his standard pregame production meeting with the game announcers Friday.
Asked if he believed Wyche's contention that there was an oversight in communication, Dilfer said: "I think (the media) realizes how situations like that are handled in a business organization like this, which is supposedly at the top of its level. If I was going to do that, I wouldn't give it to somebody else to take care of the communication. I'd take care of it myself."
Dilfer finished the season having exited six of this season's 16 games: three for non-performance, one by injury, one by ejection, and Saturday _ whatever classification it fit into.
"I was never told this week that I would be replaced," Dilfer said. "I heard it through the grapevine, but I refused to believe it because I didn't think that would happen to a guy that started 16 games for a football team.
"I totally disagreed with the decision. And I heard somebody say there were no words (between Wyche and I on the sideline). There were words. There were words on my part. I expressed my frustration. I expressed my disappointment."
Wyche, expected to be let go after four years on the job, finishes with a 23-41 (.359) record in Tampa Bay. He would become the first Bucs coach to lose his finale when it was played at Tampa Stadium. John McKay, Ray Perkins and Richard Williamson all won their final game as Buc coach at home.
As a further indignity, if the Jets score six points today against New Orleans, the Bucs will finish the season with the lowest-scoring offense in the NFL (238 points).
This was no ordinary meaningless regular-season finale, the type you had come to expect from Tampa Bay.
Besides having a shot to go 8-8 and post the team's first non-losing season since 1982, the Bucs were playing what might be their last game at Tampa Stadium.
"This is my fourth year, and I have a lot of fond memories in that stadium," Bucs defensive end Santana Dotson said. "And you couldn't help, especially in the second half, to think about it. To think, where will I
be? Where will some of my teammates be? Where will the Bucs be? Those are the questions that I can't answer. I don't believe anybody in this room can answer."
Detroit raced to a 17-0 lead early in the second quarter and cruised home. The Lions, who won their seventh straight game, improved to 10-6 and could win the NFC Central if Pittsburgh (11-4) upsets Green Bay (10-5) today. Detroit passed for 348 yards, with receivers Herman Moore (10 catches for 105 yards) and Brett Perriman (five for 135) going over 100 yards together for the fifth time this season.
The Bucs held Barry Sanders to 48 yards in 18 carries, but quarterback Scott Mitchell torched them for 352 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. The Lions got touchdowns out of receiver Johnnie Morton (5-yard reception), Perriman (91-yard reception, the longest ever against the Bucs), right defensive end Tracy Scroggins (81-yard fumble recovery), and Mitchell (1-yard run). Jason Hanson added field goals of 33, 39 and 45 yards.
"We started pretty fast at 5-2, and the wheels just kind of fell off," said linebacker Hardy Nickerson, the team MVP in a vote by the writers who regularly cover the team. "Something's got to happen. We didn't get anything done this year. We won one more than we did last year. We didn't lose 10 games, but we still didn't make anything happen. We didn't make anything worthwhile happen in this season."
Nickerson, who is a free agent in February, said his return is not assured.
"I don't know if I'll be back here," he said. "It was pretty tough playing three years. Obviously you wanted to leave here with a win. I'd be sitting here at least with a half-smile on my face. But we didn't do that today. We stunk up the joint."
Even more apt was the description used by Weldon, who recalled the promise this season once held.
"I'm disappointed in the way I played and especially that we lost," he said. "But I tell you what, as soon as we get some stability around here, it'll help. When we really get a new day in Tampa Bay. Because it hasn't started yet."