Kevin Carter spoke with the weariness of a man who sees a season slipping away.
Long after Tampa Bay's 24-23 loss to Jacksonville on Sunday at Raymond James Stadium, the Buccaneers veteran defensive end stood in his locker shaking his head and trying to find the words for what happened.
For the second straight week, the Buccaneers allowed a winnable contest to slip away. The Buccaneers allowed a chance to take control of the NFC South slip through their fingers. And, to Carter, they continued to struggle to define themselves as a team during a period in which he believes winners and losers are forged.
"This time right now, this time in our season, the midway point — weeks six through 10 — is when teams define who they are and what they're going to be for the season," Carter said. "They either go out there and show they're playoff contenders or they don't."
So who are these Buccaneers? That's the question. And after losing three of their last four games after a 3-1 start, Carter, among others, is struggling for answers.
"It's about as tough as it sounds," Carter said. "It's about as sour tasting as you think it is."
In some ways on Sunday they looked like the team that won three of its first four games. The Buccaneers (4-4) outgained the Jaguars (5-2) 385-219. Despite Jacksonville's obvious commitment to the run — they carried the ball 44 times to take the pressure off first-time starter Quinn Gray — the Bucs limited the Jags to three years per carry.
Quarterback Jeff Garcia hit wide receiver Joey Galloway for a 58-yard touchdown in the second quarter, a play that sparked the Bucs, down 14 at the time, to a 23-13 lead by the end of the third quarter.
And new acquisition Michael Bennett scored his first touchdown as a Buc.
But in other ways the Bucs reminded everyone of a team struggling under the weight of injuries and inconsistent play. Garcia threw three interceptions — his first three of the year — and Jacksonville's Aaron Glenn returned one for a touchdown. That's something Gray, a fifth-year quarterback with just a smattering of NFL passes entering the game, didn't do. Gray finished 7-of-16 passing for 100 yards and a touchdown.
"Quinn, he controlled the game without hurting anything," Jags running back Fred Taylor said.
Garcia also missed Galloway and Ike Hilliard on at least two long passes where, if the throw had been more accurate, it might have led to a score. The last one, thrown to Hilliard on 3rd-and-10 at the Jaguars 45 with 37 seconds left in the game, could have led to a score — or at least great field position in a one-point game.
On the next play, Hilliard made a first-down catch, but Jaguars corner Rashean Mathis jarred it loose for an interception to end the drive.
"I'm only focused on one (missed opportunity)," Hilliard said. "I could care less about the rest of them. I didn't give my team a chance to possibly win a game, at least to give Matt (Bryant) a chance to swing his leg once."
The Jaguars only converted 4-of-16 third downs, but two — both Gray passes — led to first downs and, later touchdowns. The latter was a 13-yard pass to Ernest Wilford, who barely got both feet inbounds after bobbling the ball. Bucs head coach Jon Gruden challenged the ruling but lost.
The Bucs struggled on third down offensively, converting only 4-of-14. They committed seven penalties for 74 yards, most coming at key times during drives. The Jags also converted both red zone opportunities and both goal-to-go opportunities. The Bucs were 1-of-3 in the red zone.
Still, the Bucs had their chances. They handled Jacksonville's blitzing defense, for the most part (Garcia was only sacked twice). The Jags ran the ball on their first 14 plays, but the Bucs defense was able to do enough to keep the Jacksonville run offense from controlling the game.
But just like last week in Detroit, turnovers became a culprit. Tampa Bay committed three and the Jags turned them into seven points. The Jags didn't commit a turnover.
Cornerback Ronde Barber said he refused to "take a moral victory out of playing a good team" to the final minutes.
"We're not a good enough team to overcome some of the mistakes that we're making," Barber said. "You can't put it on one thing."
So perhaps it is the weight of everything that has allowed the Bucs to lose three of their last four games — 11 players on injured reserve, including four starters and their top kick returner; a quartet of opponents that all had winning records when the Bucs faced them; and a litany of minute — and glaring — mistakes that may be wreaking havoc with a team's psyche during the most important period of the season.
"That's where we are now," Carter said. "That's what we're looking at. We have to go out there and decide who we're going to be. Are we going to be a team that goes out there and wins, or are we going to be a team with a bunch of near-misses?"
Right now, the Buccaneers don't have an answer.
Matthew Postins covers the Buccaneers for BucsBlitz.com and the Charlotte Sun-Herald in Port Charlotte, Fla. He is a member of the Pro Football Writers Association and has won national awards for his Buccaneers coverage from the PFWA, the National Newspaper Association and the Associated Press Sports Editors. He is also a contributor to the Scot Brantley Show from 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WHBO 1470-AM in Tampa-Clearwater.