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Bucs-Falcons: A wounded, wobbly Tampa Bay fought back before falling

Atlanta Falcons running back Devonta Freeman (24) escapes a tackle from Bucs safety Chris Conte (23) during the fourth quarter. [MONICA HERNDON | Times]
Published Dec. 18, 2017

TAMPA — As homecomings go, Jon Gruden's did not disappoint. At halftime, the Super Bowl-winning coach of the Bucs walked out of the ESPN broadcast booth and into the team's Ring of Honor.

He even called a play, a re-enactment of the Mike Alstott's 2-yard run for the first touchdown in the Bucs' win over the Raiders in Super Bowl XXXVII.

"I know you had to deal with me and that was tough,'' Gruden said to the world champion players who stood behind him during the ceremony. "It was tough dealing with you guys, too. I miss you.''

Then the balloons popped, the beer went flat and the band of brothers went home.

What was left when the Bucs' past passed the present in the tunnel at Raymond James Stadium was an embattled team and wobbly head coach that already trailed by two scores by halftime, fought back but wound up losing 24-21 to the Atlanta Falcons.

Bucs kicker Patrick Murray missed a game-tying 54-yard field goal attempt wide right as time expired.

How much Gruden misses coaching may be known to the world in a few weeks if the Bucs owners who beamed at halftime are bummed enough about this season to make a change from coach Dirk Koetter. At 4-10, this Tampa Bay team is one of the biggest disappointments in the NFL.

Even before kickoff Monday night, the Bucs presented some sobering news. Running back Doug Martin added to a horrific season by being placed on the inactive list for what was termed a "violation of team rules.''

Of course, the biggest attraction for Gruden or anyone else to the Bucs job is Winston, the 23-year-old quarterback who played well Monday night. He completed 16 of his first 18 passes. His third touchdown pass Monday, a 16-yarder Adam Humphries, left the Bucs trailing 24-21 with 4:07 to play.

Winston finished 27 of 35 for 299 yards and three touchdowns.

The difference in the first half was simple: Falcons running back Devonta Freeman fumbled at the goal line and it was recovered in the end zone by tight end Levine Toilolo for a touchdown. Peyton Barber fumbled at the Atlanta 5-yard and the Falcons recovered.

Freeman, who did not play when the teams met three weeks ago, led the Falcons by rushing for 126 yards, including a 32-yard touchdown run with 7:58 remaining in the fourth quarter that virtually put the game away.

All week long, Koetter had to endure speculation that Gruden was considering a return to the sidelines and that he might want his old job back.

The divorce after the 2008 season hurt both the Bucs and Gruden. Tampa Bay has undergone a 10-year playoff drought while the Glazer family has sought to replace him with Raheem Morris, Greg Schiano, Lovie Smith and Koetter. Gruden has forged a career as one of the highest-paid NFL analysts on television at $6.5-million per year. But at 54, he's never ruled out coaching again.

Injuries have been the story of 2017 and that theme continued Monday. The Bucs already were missing their two best defenders: Gerald McCoy and Lavonte David.

By the middle of the third quarter, they had lost tight ends O.J. Howard (ankle), who scored the Bucs' first TD, and Cameron Brate (knee), guard J.R. Sweezy (lower leg), Adarius Glanton (leg injury), safety Justin Evans (ankle) and defensive end Robert Ayers (stinger). Only Brate returned to finish the game.

No sooner had Gruden returned to his current job as the star of Monday Night Football than Mike Evans, who had two long gains erased on offensive pass interference penalties, leaped high over Falcons defensive backs Desmond Trufant and Ricardo Allen to haul in a 42-yard touchdown pass to cut the lead to 17-14.

The Falcons, as they have done all season, had trouble putting the game away. Will Gholston blocked Matt Bryant's 33-yard field goal attempt with 1:16 remaining in the third quarter.

The game went back with forth. Freeman ran for a touchdown. Humphries hauled in a TD from Winston. Clinton McDonald sacked quarterback Matt Ryan to give the Bucs one more chance.

Winston drove the Bucs to within Murray's range. His longest career field goal was 55 yards. The kick was long enough but wide right.

Contact Rick Stroud at Follow @NFLStroud

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