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Bucs sift through the wreckage

That confident steely-eyed squint of his eyes was missing Monday morning. He tried humor, but his heart didn't seem in it. His swagger had been replaced by a slow, sagging walk.

Bucs coach Jon Gruden came through the doors of One Buc Place on Monday morning looking weary, frustrated and dejected. A red-eye flight back from the West Coast might have accounted for some of the haggard look. The rest of it _ well, more likely most of it _ was due to another loss, his first 0-3 start as a head coach, and the addition of another crippling injury to a list that already was too long for his liking.

"I am not feeling great," Gruden said.

Still, Gruden went the optimistic route. He applauded his team's effort despite a 30-20 loss Sunday night in Oakland. He said he remains confident that the season is not lost, that there are plenty of games and talent left. But, finally, he admitted, "This is as low as I have been personally. The two or three friends that I have left in Tampa I am sure will call me some time and pump me up."

His first call Monday did not pump him up. He learned starting running back Charlie Garner would miss the rest of the season after surgery for a ruptured patellar tendon in his right knee. The next call? Tight end Rickey Dudley would have surgery to repair a fractured right thumb and will be out "a long time," according to Gruden.

Garner and Dudley join a list of missing skilled offensive players that includes wide receivers Joe Jurevicius, Joey Galloway and Keenan McCardell. The only slice of good news is running back Michael Pittman returns this week after a suspension.

"We're all dejected, we're all down," said Gruden, who is 19-16 in his third season with the Bucs. "Obviously, we've had some tragic injuries and some things happen. We're going to be a hell of a football team at some point. We've got to play better than we did (Sunday) night in all phases, but we will put it together."

The question is when? The season is only three games old, but already the Bucs are three games behind first-place Atlanta in the NFC South and have shown no signs of snapping out of their slide. Considering they are 3-9 in their past 12 games dating to last season, is this just a bad start or a continuation of a trend?

"We're up against a three-game losing streak," cornerback Ronde Barber said. "That's all I can look at right now. The season's not over. I'm not giving up on it. I don't think anybody on this team is that unprideful. If they are, I hope they're not here long. We've got good players; we just have to play better."

Still, with injuries and losses mounting, the tendency might be to look for the button marked panic.

"You just don't," Barber said. "Patience is the better part of valor and we'll be patient until it comes together for us. It's easy to turn it down right now, but I know the guys on this team. They're not going to do that."

Sifting through Sunday's wreck in which the Bucs fell behind 30-6, Gruden found a few reasons to get out of bed Monday. Receivers Tim Brown and Bill Schroeder stepped up to score the first offensive touchdowns of the season. Quarterback Brad Johnson, who will start Sunday at home against Denver, impressed Gruden with his grit and leadership. And, well, the defense has looked good in two out of three.

Still, bottom line: 0-3, for the first time since 1996.

"Every man has to look in the mirror and be honest with himself," linebacker Derrick Brooks said. "We've got to play better. We can't make the mistakes we're making and expect to win. When we're in a position to make a play, we have to make a play. That's the only way you're going to pull yourself out of a hole."

Gruden doesn't expect to make any changes in the foreseeable future except for the ones made necessary by injuries. Maybe McCardell will come back, maybe he won't. Johnson, and not Chris Simms, is the starting quarterback.

"We are going to rebuild this thing," Gruden said. "We are going to re-energize this thing and we are going to once again be great. That's the only way we are going to do things here."