TAMPA - Warrick Dunn stared straight ahead, searching for words to explain how the Tampa Bay Buccaneers let a promising season slip away with a December swoon that left them out of the playoffs.
"There's disbelief. There's shock. There's emotions, I'm sure, that I can't really describe," the veteran running back said yesterday after a 31-24 loss to the Oakland Raiders. the team's fourth consecutive loss. It was also a loss the Eagles needed to get into the playoffs.
"To be 9-3, and you lose four in a row when all you have to do is win one and you're in, it's tough to swallow. The guys in this locker room have prepared hard, played hard. Things haven't gone our way."
Michael Bush rushed for a career-high 177 yards and scored on a 67-yard fourth-quarter jaunt, helping the Raiders (5-11) overcome a 10-point deficit and make their final case for interim coach Tom Cable retaining his job.
Tampa Bay (9-7) was tied for first place in the NFC South heading into December but was outscored, 62-19, in the fourth quarter and overtime of losses to Carolina, Atlanta, San Diego and Oakland down the stretch.
"It's very disappointing . . . I'm sick for our players, and our fans, more than anything," Bucs coach Jon Gruden said.
Losses to the Panthers and Falcons ended realistic hopes of repeating as division champions. More puzzling, though, were setbacks the last 2 weeks at home - where the Bucs were 6-0 before this month - against teams with losing records.
"I know we let down a lot of people, and we apologize for that," said quarterback Jeff Garcia (17-for-33, 257 yards). "We, as a team, are better than what we have put on the field in the last four weeks."
It's certainly not the way Tampa Bay's normally reliable defense wanted to go out under longtime defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, who's leaving to join his son, Lane, at the University of Tennessee.
Oakland fired Lane Kiffin as its coach four games into this season, replacing him with Cable, who has won two straight and is 4-8 since taking over. He will meet soon with owner Al Davis, who did not travel with the team to Tampa Bay.
"It's all I can do. It's the best I can do," Cable said. "I want to be the head coach of the Raiders, but it's not in my hands. But I certainly know I put this team together and got it going in the right direction, and today proved that."
The Raiders were mum about Davis, but the Oakland Tribune reported doctors advised him to not fly across the country because of some swelling in his leg. It was believed to be just the second time he has not attended a game since becoming a part of the organization in 1963.
Davis missed what Cable described as the team's "best effort from top to bottom."
JaMarcus Russell (14-21, 148 yards) threw for two touchdowns for the Raiders, who looked as though they were out of the game after being outgained in the third quarter, 168-21. Tampa Bay went up 24-14 with a field goal and touchdown in the first 4 minutes of the fourth period.
But Oakland's young quarterback rebounded from throwing an interception that Sabby Piscitelli returned 84 yards to the Raiders' 11 to set up Carnell "Cadillac" Williams' 8-yard TD run.
"This collapse in this last month of the season is something that none of us ever would have expected," Garcia said. "It definitely hurts. It's going to stick with us for a long time after this day." *