Moments after the final team meeting of a disappointing 2004 season, Pro Bowl linebacker Derrick Brooks pondered the question everyone is asking.
What went wrong?
"I don't have the answer," Brooks said Monday. "If I did, it would probably be solved. But the good thing is I don't have to come up with the answer by myself."
The first team to follow a Super Bowl victory with consecutive losing seasons, Tampa Bay's 5-11 mark this season was its worst since 1993, not to mention its most confounding. Competitive in nearly every game, the Bucs found ways to lose close games.
"If you look at this team down the roster, I think you realize we have an abundance of talent," receiver Joe Jurevicius said. "But for whatever reason, it didn't click this year. That's the most frustrating part. I know some people may laugh when I say we've got a good football team, but I do believe in the guys we have here."
From the rubble of a losing season, the Bucs appear to have found a starting quarterback in Brian Griese, though the team likely will need to restructure a contract that pays him $8-million in salary and bonuses next season.
"I'd love to be back here in Tampa," Griese said. "I've really developed a fondness for the area. My wife and I love it here. I think it's a good organization. I'm optimistic about the future.
"I know it's hard to see right now, but I can kind of see through the fog."
So can Brooks.
Though he never expected the Super Bowl XXXVII champions to go 12-20 the past two seasons, so many closes losses are an indication to him the team is closer to winning than it might appear.
"Twenty losses in two years is not where I expected us to be after a Super Bowl championship," Brooks said. "Even more frustrating than that is probably 16 of those losses are seven points or less. So the more I think about it, it may not be all X's and O's. You just have to trust now that everyone's feeling the disappointment and anger, make sure that we target it in the right direction."
Brooks was off by one _ 15 losses were by seven points or fewer_ but the sentiment is accurate. While the team might have missed the leadership of Warren Sapp and John Lynch, enough experienced players remained to pick up the slack.
"We had a lot of veteran savvy here, a lot of guys who have played 16, 13, 12 years," Jurevicius said. "When you miss a guy like Warren Sapp or John Lynch, maybe it does hurt sometimes. But we've got a lot of talent on this team, and it was just a matter of taking the bull by the horns. And we didn't do it.
"I think all of us are to blame."
Brooks said he does not plan to dwell on the Bucs' shortcomings any more than he basked in their glory two years ago.
"Just like we had to put behind us winning the championship, we've got to put this 5-11 season behind us, too," he said.
"There's nothing we can do about it but learn from it. And make sure we bury it."