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Gruden, Bucs searching for answers after winless December

TAMPA, Fla. -- The grim look on Jon Gruden's face spoke for all of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

A day after completing an 0-for-December collapse that kept them out of the playoffs, the coach and his players were still struggling to explain why their season fell apart after a promising start.

Gruden made several references to injuries, conceded for the first time that the impending departure of longtime defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin became a distraction, and reiterated he has to take responsibility for the team's performance down the stretch.

"You are what you are," Gruden said Monday, reflecting on a 9-7 record that left the Bucs out of the playoffs for the fourth time in six years.

"I hate not competing for championships, and we're not," he added. "So it's not a very good season, not good enough."

The Bucs were 9-3 and tied for first place in the NFC South heading into December, but finished with losses to Carolina and Atlanta on the road and San Diego and Oakland at home, where they had been 6-0.

One more win would have landed a NFC wild-card berth.

"Clearly at 9-3 you don't expect to miss the playoffs. There's not a lot of explanation for it at this point, and it's an emotional time right now," backup quarterback Brian Griese said. "You have to wait, and kind of digest and look back and figure out what you can do better as an individual, and go forward and get better."

Although linebacker Derrick Brooks and others insisted Kiffin's decision to join his son, Lane, at the University of Tennessee at the end of the season was not a factor for the defense, there's no denying the results were not the same after the move was announced Nov. 30.

After limiting opponents to 95.4 yards per game rushing in the first 12 games, the Bucs yielded 189 per game on the ground in December. The unit gave up 16.7 points per game en route to the 9-3 start, then allowed 30.8 per game during the four-game losing streak.

"No matter who writes the story, that's not a recipe for success in this league. ... It's really heartbreaking," Gruden said.

"We're built to finish (strong)," Brooks added, "and we didn't."

Secondary coach Raheem Morris will replace Kiffin as defensive coordinator next season, and other possible changes include the departure of quarterback Jeff Garcia.

Garcia was a Pro Bowl selection a year ago when he led the team to a division title, but he's had a rocky relationship with Gruden since then. The 38-year-old choked back tears while talking about his future following Sunday's 31-24 loss to the Raiders.

"It's difficult to think about football right now, honestly. ... As much as I and everybody in that locker room wanted to prolong the season and find a way to get into the playoffs, unfortunately it wasn't in the cards for us," Garcia said.

"For me, there are a lot of question marks as to what is going to happen this offseason. I can't even say whether it's 50-50 or what, but if this is my last game as a Buccaneer, I just really want to thank my teammates and the fans. ... It's been awesome, and we'll just see what happens."

While Gruden said he'd like Garcia to return, he's also open to potentially bringing in a new starter.

The health of running backs Earnest Graham and Carnell "Cadillac" Williams also could influence moves to bolster that position. Graham missed the last six weeks of the season with an ankle injury, while Williams injured his left knee Sunday after sitting out most of the season with a right knee injury he sustained in 2007.

"We'll see who's available. We want to get better at every position if we can. That's our job," the coach said, adding that he is not unhappy with Garcia, who was 6-5 as the starter this season.

"I don't remember getting in my car one time this year thinking we shouldn't have won that football game. He's put our team in position to win. He's taken care of the football," Gruden said. "He's not as young as he used to be, but he's still one heck of a competitor and a fine quarterback." Griese reiterated that turnover is inevitable, regardless of whether a team makes the playoffs.

"It's the one thing that's constant in the NFL. ... Our team will be no different," Griese said. "There'll be a lot of changes, I'm sure."

Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press

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