Somebody yelled â€œicebergâ€ in Week 3 against Carolina. By Thanksgiving, the majority of the Bucs faithful had jumped ship. And on Sunday, the last ripple from a season gone awry quietly resonated from Raymond James Stadium with a 23-7 loss to Seattle.
Riding the tails of the six best quarters the team had played all year, the Bucs were intent on ending the season in front of their home crowd with a win and something to build on for next season.
Throw in the speculation that fullback Mike Alstott was wrapping up his career, and the incentive to pull out a victory in what was for all intents and purposes a meanlingless game was that much greater.
Meaningless on both sides as Seattleâ€™s playoff fate was sealed prior to kickoff. Having won the NFC West for the third consecutive season, the Seahawks could do nothing to improve their posturing as they held the fourth seed in the NFC regardless of the outcome.
But head coach Mike Holmgrenâ€™s team had lost three in a row heading into Sunday and needed to find a rhythm on offense while rebuilding its confidence. And that they did, scoring on three of five first half possessions.
Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck came out sharp, completing 12 of 19 passes for 120 yards and a touchdown to wide receiver D.J. Hackett just before the half. This, coming after of a loss to San Diego a week before in which he completed just 17 of 37 passes with two interceptions and a 39.1 quarterback rating.
Haselbeck's passer rating in Sundayâ€™s first half, 109.5.
Despite his hot hand, the Bucs managed to outgain Seattle in total yards in the first half, 216 to 202. And they did it with big plays from running back Michael Pittman and wide receivers Maurice Stovall and Joey Galloway.
However, attempts to get Alstott involved failed. The â€œA-Trainâ€ had three carries for minus-2 yards in the first half.
On the first play of the Bucsâ€™ second possession, Pittman, who was starting in place of an injured Cadillac Williams, ripped off his longest run of the year, 32 yards off left tackle. He finished with 12 rushes for 73 yards and an impressive 6.1 yards per carry average.
Stovall followed up Pittmanâ€™s run with an 18-yard end-around on the next play. Ultimatley, the drive stalled and failed to produce points as kicker Matt Bryant missed a 44-yard field goal.
Galloway came into the game needing 61 yards to go over 1,000 for the year and become only the second Buccaneer in team history to put together back to back 1,000-yard seasons. Keyshawn Johnson did it in 2001-02.
He hit the mark with a 13-yard reception at the end of the first quarter. It came three plays after a 44-yarder and set up his 4-yard touchdown catch from quarterback Tim Rattay, which cut the Seahawksâ€™ lead to 10-7.
â€œRight now, that doesnâ€™t mean a whole lot to me,â€ Galloway said after the game. â€œThe season is over and everyone is a little disappointed right now because we felt like we had the talent to win more games and we just didnâ€™t play well enough.â€
Galloway finished the day with eight catches for 118 yards, marking the fourth game this season in which heâ€™s gone over 100 yards receiving.
Down 17-7 at the half and with the offense moving the ball, Tampa Bay had a conceivable chance of winning, but the Bucs would run just seven offensive plays in the third quarter, six if you donâ€™t count a Josh Bidwell punt.
The reason? Alstott fumbled on the Bucsâ€™ first second half possession, setting up a field goal by Seattleâ€™s Josh Brown. Tampa Bayâ€™s second drive stalled when Rattay was sacked by Seahawks outside linebacker Julian Peterson, forcing a punt.
Seattle then went on a marathon drive, taking 8:12 off the clock with a 14-play, 65-yard drive, ending in another Brown field goal, which gave his team a two possession lead.
The Bucs offensive stars of the first half were kept on the bench for a majority of the second, with Pittman getting only two carries and Galloway two receptions over the final 30 minutes.
Led by strong running from Shaun Alexander, who had 52 of his 93 yards in the last two quarters, the Seahawks recorded 12 second half first downs. They would post 28 to Tampa Bayâ€™s 15 for the game. The result? They won the time of possession battle by nearly 15 minutes.
Alstott was understandably disappointed in the loss and his performance, six carries for four yards. He exited the field with his wife Nicole and their three kids, stopping for photos with obvious emotions.
After the game, he gave a strong indication that it was his last time in a Bucs uniform .
â€œEleven years go into the head,â€ he said. â€œFeelings, electricity and the excitement that the crowd brings me is indescribable. Walking off that field with my family just now was incredible. I would just like to say thank you to all of them for all those years. It has been great and I appreciate every moment of it.â€
The veteran fullback stopped short of stating his intentions on playing for a 12th season. He had signed a one-year contract prior to this season and said he really needs to think about things before â€œsaying the â€˜Râ€™ word.â€
Seattle improves to 9-7 while Tampa Bay falls to 4-12, the teamâ€™s worst record since 1991 (3-13). Head Coach Jon Gruden chalks up the disappointment to experience.
â€œItâ€™s experience,â€ he said. â€œWe had a lot of bad experiences. We had some great experiences. We really did.
â€œWe had some moments where we looked like a good football team and there are things that we can build off of. Clearly, we have some things to address. At the same time, weâ€™ll use the off-season to try and improve our football team with the players we do have.â€
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