Winston, Buccaneers Headed In The Wrong Direction

Jameis Winston Struggled On Sunday, As Did Dirk Koetter, As Did The Buccaneers

Jameis Winston seemed almost upbeat during his press conference following the Buccaneers’ display of questionable effort, a 17-3 loss to Carolina in a game the Buccaneers could under no circumstances afford to lose. That was, he seemed almost upbeat until a reporter asked him how he felt about the offense’s performance—more accurately, lack thereof—in front of the home fans of Tampa Bay.

“I’m very sorry to the fans, definitely for my performance today. I didn’t show up and show out so fans, I apologize.”

That about says it all. Winston is to be credited for answering the question and the challenge to say something directly to the fans, but his play warranted such an apology, and that’s alarming.

The Buccaneers fell behind in the first quarter and they never came back. The score might have only been 17-3, but it seemed like the gap between 5-3 Carolina and 2-5 Tampa Bay was much, much wider than that. The defense played well, providing some promise after two weeks of letdowns, but the offense never truly showed up.

If the second half against Buffalo was the Buccaneers’ offense at its best, the first half on Sunday against Carolina was Tampa Bay’s offense at its nadir. The failure was a team effort. The Buccaneers were shut out in the first half in all facets. The offensive line didn’t do much blocking, which neutralized the run game. Jameis Winston’s decision-making issues were on full display, especially on a fumble that might as well have been a shovel pass to the Carolina Panthers.

The defense can be credited with holding the Panthers within striking distance while the offense tried to find itself again. The unit that had given up thirty or more points in two straight games showed some life against Cam Newton and his teammates. That fumble near midfield did not result in Carolina scoring any points. While the Panthers marched down to score their first touchdown of the game in the first quarter on a drive that went for 82 yards, the rest of Carolina’s first half was filled with frustration.

The third quarter opened with an interception. Cam Newton threw Chris Conte’s way and Conte made him pay with a pick around midfield. Some nifty running by Doug Martin moved Tampa Bay into field goal range, where the drive stalled. Patrick Murray knocked one through to put the Bucs on the board, but at 10-3 they still needed a touchdown. The third quarter, somewhat uneventful after that, ended on that 10-3 score.

That was as close as the game would get. Tampa Bay started their first fourth quarter drive on their own three. After a couple of first downs, they looked like they might be putting something together. The Carolina defense had other plans. A successful blitz on Winston led to a poor decision, which led to a wounded duck that was easily picked off by Carolina. Cam Newton led the Panthers’ offense 48 yards to an eventual touchdown pass to Kelvin Benjamin. The play put Carolina up 17-3 with 8:48 remaining in the game and the Tampa Bay offense reeling as much as it has at any point in the season.

With just over 2:30 remaining in the football game, Winston threw while pressured and while falling backward to nobody in particular. The Panthers dropped the potential interception, but it was little matter, as the play came on fourth down. The play added insult to injury and just underlined the facts: The 2017 Buccaneers did not improve, they got worse.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are introduced before their game against the Carolina Panthers on Sunday. (Tim Williams/Sports Talk Florida)

So where are the Buccaneers now, in terms of progress? Unless they go 7-2 with their remaining schedule, which seems extremely unlikely given their play to this point, they will have taken a definite step backward in 2017. This in a year when Winston was expected to take the next step, Dirk Koetter was expected to have a stable team, and the team was expected by many to make the playoffs.

2-5 teams tend not to play meaningful January football. The playoffs need to still be the measure against which the Bucs are weighed, but the scales will not look good for the pewter pirates.

Offensively, all the progress that last week’s second half seemed to represent was erased. An offense with four very good passing targets was again predictable. A team led by an error-prone quarterback put Jameis Winston in a position to make errors.

Today, no matter how much football will always be a team sport, evaluation starts with the QB. Jameis Winston did not look like whatever you might decide an “elite quarterback” means. The question becomes, while the talent is obvious, is Jameis Winston the guy that can lead the Bucs to the playoffs and perhaps beyond? If he’s not the kind of QB who can be the driving force behind a Super Bowl contender, what kind of offense does he need around him to be successful? Would more protection help reduce errors? Would a different offensive philosophy benefit him? Most importantly, what does Winston need to do to become the kind of quarterback he was drafted to be? At the moment, the Bucs cannot win with anything less than Winston playing like an all pro. That means adjustments are needed both from Dirk Koetter and from Jameis Winston.

Koetter is the next issue that needs to be addressed. In just his second season, it seems far too early to demand a change, but he too has taken a step backward in 2017. How can he change his approach to better fit the team around him? Does he need to delegate playcalling to somebody else in other to focus on preparation the Buccaneers simply haven’t seemed to do since week two? How can he tweak his approach to better suit Winston’s strengths and weaknesses?

Defensive coordinator Mike Smith put together a solid enough game plan. A team that gives up seventeen points is in a position to win. Cam Newton was not allowed to get comfortable, the Panthers’ run game only got going in spurts, and Carolina scored its second touchdown on a drive that started in Buccaneer territory. This week, questions are more about why his defense only shows up like this in home games. Cuban sandwiches travel better.

Jason Licht is at the end of a lot of pointed fingers right now. What seemed like a good offseason for Tampa Bay might in fact have been an example of getting a bunch of flashy parts without knowing exactly how they would fit. O.J. Howard was targeted once. Desean Jackson had eight passes thrown in his direction and caught only three. On paper, the offense looks deep and opportunities seem limitless. In practice, it has been difficult to say the least to get Winston to distribute the ball to all his targets and for the Buccaneers to get anything out of a combined four running backs.

The Bucs ran the ball 22 times on Sunday afternoon. That just about matches their season average, and 22 runs per game tell a story. The offense is not clicking, and it’s increasingly one-dimensional due to a lack of run blocking and second half deficits that inspire Dirk Koetter to call for Winston to throw the ball even more than usual. It seems at times that the Buccaneers were assembled strictly in terms of talent; that Jason Licht has never really considered how all the individual pieces are going to come together.

It may be cathartic for frustrated Buccaneers fans to call for heads, to suggest Winston might not be all he was billed to be, and to beg for Jon Gruden to waltz out of the broadcast booth to take over in the offseason. Of course that’s natural, given that the Buccaneers are a decade removed from a playoff appearance and fifteen years out from their last playoff win.

It’s especially frustrating when looking for answers, as the typical NFL player and coach is reluctant to be truly honest through disappointment. To wit, Dirk Koetter’s take on the passing game Sunday was this:

“I think the wind was the main factor in the passing game. Jameis did take a shot early in the fourth quarter and he was hurting a little bit after that, I thought he might have to come out. But, he stayed in. It was on the first play of a drive and he stayed in and we kept going and the game flow went. I haven’t talked to him since about that.”

Fans want accountability. In reality, it’s not so simple. We’ve all had bad days at work, no matter who you are or what position you hold. Think about your worst work day in recent memory. Imagine if somebody who was not your boss asked you on your way out of the building to give a full accounting of all the ways you disappointed or outright screwed up. Would you be brutally honest? More likely that you’ll ask people to keep in mind the conditions,

Yes, it was windy on Sunday. In the month I’ve lived in the area, I have yet to see Tampa Bay itself so choppy. The flags were blowing so hard around Raymond James Stadium that most of them were taken down by the second half. Going one way, the ball carried more than anyone would expect. Going the other, the wind was in everybody’s face. The conditions were not necessarily ideal for the running game, but that begs the question of why Koetter only called a grand total of twenty two running plays on the afternoon.

Just for the record, Winston did not agree with Koetter’s assessment. “No, we are NFL quarterbacks. We’ve got to be able to throw in the wind.”

The problem with calling for heads and pointing fingers is that it likely will solve nothing.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston (3) throws a pass against the Carolina Panthers during the third quarter of an NFL football game Sunday, Oct. 29, 2017, in Tampa, Fla. Photo: AP Photo/Phelan Ebenhack.

Yes, you can point to evidence that Dirk Koetter is not doing a good job in 2017 as the head coach. There is a case to be made that Jameis Winston is unlikely to ever be an MVP candidate with the way he has played. Changing coordinators, playcallers, general managers, or the players themselves are always something to discuss when a team is disappointing. We’re all sports fans at the end of the day, and this is what we do. Still, the fact is that patience is the most likely route to success.

The Pittsburgh Steelers lead the universe in Lombardi Trophies. They have had three coaches since 1969. Yes, Chuck Noll is in the Hall of Fame and Bill Cowher as well as Mike Tomlin have done good jobs in the Steel City, but patience enabled their success. Cowher, if you’ll recall, was on the losing side of four AFC Championships held in Pittsburgh. That is to say, he lost when Vegas said he was supposed to win. Four times. There are teams out there that would have let their coach go for less than that.

Earlier this year, Mike Tomlin came under fire as the Steelers lost another game on the road to a lesser opponent. Just a few weeks later, Pittsburgh might be a Super Bowl contender yet again. There is no hot seat there, there is no room for impatience. Make no mistake, the Rooney Family isn’t that lucky at hiring head coaches. They’re just wise enough to stick with coaches when upgrades, however attractive to talk about, are unlikely.

This is not a comfortable answer. On a day where the entire offense failed to produce just when people thought it had found its stride, the unit took a step backward. In 2017, Jameis Winston has taken a step backward. So has Dirk Koetter. Don’t forget, however, that great coaches are hard to find and quarterbacks of Winston’s level are even more elusive. On Sunday, Tampa Bay proved that they still have a lot of work to do if they are to be contenders at any point in the Winston/Koetter era. There are no shortcuts.

That includes cleaning house.

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Tim Williams has been covering sports since his days as a student at Northeastern University covering events such as the Beanpot. In the thirteen years since, he has covered college hockey, the NFL, Major League Baseball, the PGA Tour, and the National Hockey League. A native of the Tampa Bay area, Tim has returned home after living much of his life in the northeast, including sixteen years in the Boston area. These days the Managing Editor of Sports Talk Florida can be found on Florida's golf courses when he's not working.