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Final four games proving ground for 2007 season

The 2006 season hasn't been much fun for the Bucs, but coach Jon Gruden believes the team's promising young players will be better for the experience.

"In this league I think sometimes the best way to take a huge step forward is going through some tough times," Gruden said. "This football team will get hardened, and a lot of these guys are getting hardened right now. They are getting a rude awakening as to what this league is all about."

The Bucs start three rookies on offense and have several second-year players in key roles.

At 3-9, the Bucs will use the final four games to identify players who can help the rebuilding franchise compete for titles.

"We're looking for playoff players. We're not looking for anything else," Gruden said. "Are you going to be good enough to help the Buccaneers win a championship?

"This experience, although some of these experiences are gut-wrenching and humiliating, you really study the tape and you look at the performance of each player, the way they compete, the way they execute, the playmaking that they bring to Tampa Bay. We're going to find out how many guys on this football team can help us win a championship. The guys who can't, obviously, won't be a part of this program."

While losing has divided some teams, Gruden said the lockerroom remains united.

"I think we have what it takes to be finishers," he said. "You sign up for 16 games. Some of these teams that think you sign up for nine or 10 games and see if you're in the playoff hunt, that's a bunch of crock. ... You finish a 16-game slate the best way you can, and our football team is going to do that because we have the right kind of guys."

ALUMNI WEEKEND: The franchise will hold its first alumni gathering this weekend, with more than 100 former players spanning the team's 31-year history expected to attend.

Hardy Nickerson, Lee Roy Selmon and James Wilder will serve as honorary captains for the coin toss before Sunday's game against the Falcons at Raymond James Stadium. All alumni will be recognized at halftime, including Donnie Abraham, Mark Carrier, Brad Culpepper, Jimmie Giles, Tony Mayberry, Doug Williams and Richard Wood.

Other scheduled events include a visit to the Bucs' new state-of-the-art training facility, a golf outing at Innisbrook and a banquet Saturday night at the stadium.

INJURY UPDATE: Receiver Michael Clayton, who left Sunday's game in Pittsburgh after an 11-yard reception in the third quarter, was scheduled to have an MRI exam Monday, but Gruden did not have an update on the extent of Clayton's knee injury.

Joanne Korth can be reached at korth@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8810.

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