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Bucs leaders must stand and deliver

The game ended. The stadium cleared and the parking lot emptied. The day went silent and, eventually, the sun departed.

And still you were waiting.

Waiting for that game-saving play.

Waiting for that season-defining moment.

Thus far, this is the story of the 2003 Buccaneers. Not the handful of free agents who departed. Not the injuries that have been many and severe. Not the defensive tackle acting tough or the receiver acting innocent.

The Bucs have become a mediocre team because their many stars have allowed it to happen. Because they are not making the plays that make the difference.

The team with a Lombardi Trophy, with four straight postseason berths, with 33 Pro Bowl appearances on the roster? That team could not find a single leader to save a close game at home against a 3-5 opponent Sunday.

Just like a month earlier when it could find no one to slow Indianapolis. Or two weeks before that when it could not hold off Carolina.

Walk the length of the Bucs locker room and you will hear the players say it themselves, although with a distinctly optimistic bent.

You know, they might point out, we're only a few plays from being 6-2. Heck, you could hear them say, we could even be 7-1.

Okay, so why aren't they?

Why haven't those plays been made?

Of all the teams in the NFL, can you think of another you would prefer to be cheering when a game was on the line? The quarterback is as sharp as they come. The receivers are fearless. The defense is one for the ages, and the head coach might be the league's brightest boss.

So isn't it a surprise that this accomplished, decorated, veteran team has lost all three of its games that have come down to the final seconds?

"To a degree," coach Jon Gruden said.

The NFL, understand, is a league of very little disparity. Each roster, essentially, has the same 40 players. It's the other dozen who make the difference. They determine whether a record is 4-4 or 6-2 or 2-6.

They are the players who come up big when the moment is vital. They are Derrick Brooks intercepting a Kurt Warner pass and running it back for a touchdown with 59 seconds remaining in a Monday night game. They are Martin Gramatica kicking field goals of 47, 52 and 53 yards in the fourth quarter to beat Carolina. They are Brad Johnson leading the offense to the winning score against Detroit after fracturing his back.

These are the moments that have been missing this season.

Clearly, there are other factors involved. The injuries, undoubtedly, have hurt Tampa Bay. But it's not like the Bucs to have fallen apart.

They are ranked No. 5 in the NFL in defense. They are No. 6 in offense. No other team has both units ranked so highly. Yet this well-balanced, star-studded team has lost as many games as it has won.

"Guys that want that opportunity to be big players need to make some big plays," receiver Keenan McCardell said. "It's right there in our grasp.

"We can do it. We've got to do it. That's the bottom line."

If they doubt the importance of playing big when it counts, the Bucs need only look at this weekend's opponent to figure it out.

Carolina is a young team coming off a losing season. Yet it is 6-2. Tampa Bay is veteran team coming off a Super Bowl title. Yet it is 4-4.

The difference?

About 21 points, here or there.

The Panthers have gone 4-0 in games decided by three points or fewer. The Bucs are 0-3 in similar situations.

"We have lost some games in the closing seconds that have us very concerned," Gruden said.

The Bucs were fortunate when it came to injuries last season. They have been less so in 2003. So, yes, it makes a difference when John Lynch and Brian Kelly are not in the secondary. And it makes a difference when Joe Jurevicius and Mike Alstott are not in the offensive huddle.

But the 49ers beat a good team Sunday with Jeff Garcia on the sideline. And the Texans won without their top quarterback or running back. The point is, injuries are a way of life in the NFL.

It takes a resilient team to persevere. It takes big-time players to step into the breech.

"We know we're not a bad team," running back Michael Pittman said. "We're the defending Super Bowl champions. We've got to play like that.

"Guys are frustrated, but we know what we can do."

It is not too late. The Raiders showed that last season when they went from a 4-4 start to the Super Bowl.

And the Bucs already have proved they have the talent to get it done. Even without Shelton Quarles, they beat the Eagles. Even without Alstott and Jurevicius, they beat the Cowboys.

All they need in the second half of the season is someone to make a stand. Someone to step up when the situation is dire and the hour is late.

We're all waiting.

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