Jon Gruden feels your pain, Buccaneers fans.
Despite posting the first back-to-back winning seasons in his seven-year tenure with Tampa Bay, Gruden was understandably somber Monday in his final news conference as 12 other NFL teams prepare for the playoffs.
"I hate not competing for championships, so it's not a very good season,'' Gruden said, referring to the four-game losing streak that ended a once-promising year. "We didn't defend the run well enough. We missed too many tackles and run fits. Injuries took a toll on us, certainly.''
One year after receiving a contract extension by the Glazers, Gruden acknowledged the frustration of Tampa Bay supporters stunned by a second consecutive 9-7 finish, especially considering a 9-3 start that had Bucs fans believing the club could be representing the NFC at home in the Feb. 1 Super Bowl.
"I'd say they have every right to feel the way they do,'' Gruden said of fans disgruntled with his job performance. "I'm working as hard as I can, and I'll continue to do that as long as I'm in this position.''
Gruden said he would like quarterback Jeff Garcia back in 2009, although he didn't rule out bringing in a new starter through free agency. He also acknowledged the Bucs are well-situated in terms of available money under the salary cap to pursue high-profile free agents beginning in March.
He pointed to a young offensive line and Tampa Bay's secondary as strengths and said he welcomed the news that 11-time Pro Bowl linebacker Derrick Brooks said Monday that he would like to return for a 15th season.
Gruden said Monte Kiffin's successor as defensive coordinator, Raheem Morris, could end up retaining his duties as secondary coach. He said any potential additional changes to the coaching staff would be discussed internally later in the week.
Tampa Bay's December slump coincided with the news that Kiffin was departing for the University of Tennessee to work with his son, Lane.
"It's been tough,'' Gruden said of the awkward timing. "It's been talked about daily. All I can say is I won't use that as an excuse.''
Despite the late-season collapse, Gruden tried to stay positive amid the carnage.
"In some ways, I'm really proud of this team,'' he said. "To be 9-7 isn't a disgrace, but the way we finished is disappointing to say the least.''
Gruden said re-signing wide receiver Antonio Bryant is a top priority for the offseason after the potential free agent finished eighth in the league with 1,248 receiving yards.
"I thought Antonio had an unbelievable season, and Jeff Faine was a very good addition at center,'' he said. "I'm always going to be confident. We've got to do a great job in free agency.''