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Five reasons the season went south

What does Jon Gruden say? It's not how you start, it's where you finish.

In both cases, the Bucs weren't very good this season. They started 0-4 and have lost three straight heading into today's finale against the Cardinals.

The final autopsy report on 2004 is still a few weeks away, but the first back-to-back losing seasons since 1995-96 would suggest foul play.

"I don't know what happened," linebacker Derrick Brooks said. "We had a great preseason, we battled through some injuries, still was able to win three (preseason) games. Even battled back through 0-4. The way we were playing, I always thought we were going to come out of this hole. Every time we thought we had a chance to do it, for one reason or another we didn't."

In the days ahead, the Bucs will blame injuries, a constricting salary cap, bad bounces, inexplicable gaffes and a holdout for their failure. That's what losing teams do.

But five major mistakes the Bucs made contributed to their unraveling. You can call it hindsight, but each was predictable.

1. SPENDING GOOD MONEY AFTER BAD: Sure, Kenyatta Walker and Mike Alstott were the only offensive players drafted by the Bucs who Gruden had to work with. And picks were at a premium with the four No. 1 choices given away for Keyshawn Johnson and Gruden.

But wasn't that the case when Tampa Bay won the Super Bowl? After complaining about "the worst salary-cap situation in the NFC," general manager Bruce Allen spent $9.7-million on three players who combined to start 16 games (Charlie Garner, $3.7-million; Todd Steussie, $4-million and Joey Galloway, $2-million).

Derrick Deese ($2.475-million) missed the preseason and was hobbled by a chronic foot injury all season. Matt Stinchcomb ($1.035-million) struggled on the left side, making the running game strictly right-handed.

The real downer? Tampa Bay will be $10-million to $12-million over the cap in '05.

2. FORGETTING LEADERSHIP MATTERS: How did the decision to cut John Lynch work out? Lynch made the Pro Bowl while Jermaine Phillips refractured his forearm.

Performance aside, the Bucs lost too many powerful voices in the locker room. Keenan McCardell's holdout and subsequent trade cost them veteran leadership.

Players such as Tim Brown, Steussie, Garner and Galloway were viewed as outsiders by teammates and chemistry was underrated by the front office.

"I don't know. Standing here today, maybe when I evaluate this season in March, maybe that's one of the things that may stick out to me as I go through the season," Brooks said. "Right now, it's hard to say."

3. FIELD GOALS MATTER: Martin Gramatica was a 60 percent kicker in '03. He was 60 percent in the preseason.

Could the Bucs not fathom he might continue to skid?

Sure, wanting to prevent $2-million of dead money on the salary cap was reason to delay releasing Gramatica. But the Bucs didn't have to lose games because their kicker was in the tank. Jay Taylor, making the rookie minimum, could've prevented two or three losses if the team had carried two kickers.

4. PLAYING CHRIS SIMMS IN WEEK 2: Honestly. Has their been a bigger panic button pushed than the one by Gruden after 15 plays Sept. 19 against the Seahawks?

Simms had never taken a regular-season NFL snap. Six-year veteran Brian Griese was inactive. All the Bucs needed was one touchdown drive to win. Given, say, 45 plays, who's to say Super Bowl quarterback Brad Johnson might not have done that? The Bucs lost 10-6.

Gruden probably saw Simms as a scapegoat for the '04 season when he elected to start him Oct. 10 at New Orleans. It took Steussie getting Simms injured for Griese to get off the bench.

5. MICHAEL PITTMAN: His off-field issues made him unavailable during a three-game suspension and hurt the team.

Statistically, he had a great season. But the only number that matters is five lost fumbles, most in the NFL. They directly resulted in losses to the Rams and Panthers.

Some teammates were dumbstruck he was being used to close out games.