Were the first two weeks an illusion?
A week five bye week might seem early on paper, but the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have earned it after four weeks that felt like twelve.
Those first two wins turned heads and changed minds on the Bucs. A fanbase that had been lukewarm at best suddenly turned as hot as the lingering Summer air, setting lofty aspirations and talking about all the things the naysayers missed.
Even on Monday night, the optimists put their best foot forward. The offense made a game of it late, and it’s no small accomplishment to throw for over 400 yards in three straight games.
After that came the interminable talk of who better “deserved” to start on Sunday. After Monday night’s game against Pittsburgh, DeSean Jackson had to (wisely choose not to) answer questions about Ryan Fitzpatrick and Jameis Winston. So did Fitzpatrick, struggling with questions he couldn’t answer without throwing a teammate under the bus or disparaging himself after a record-setting start.
Every discussion of Buccaneers football from Tuesday through Sunday morning was about the passer. All the while, the team refused to tip their hand.
Little did we all know it wouldn’t matter a bit. Name a quarterback from any point in NFL history, and they too would have been on the losing side of this one. The Chicago Bears dominated the Bucs on Sunday, start to finish, in every phase of the football game. Nobody, not Montana, not Manning, not Tom Brady, would have turned the tide for Tampa Bay.
Simply put, the Buccaneers came out of the tunnel on Sunday entirely unprepared for the Chicago Bears. Especially on defense, it was as though the Bucs hadn’t watched game film. Receivers were left so open an observer might think they had been ignored. Mitchell Trubisky was allowed to display every one of his strengths, and not once forced into the weaknesses that had his detractors questioning the Bears’ commitment to the young quarterback.
Chicago didn’t take advantage of a short field, turnovers, or special teams play to leap out to a 38-3 halftime lead. Instead, they simply torched a Buccaneers’ defense still recovering from injury. They didn’t just make Tampa Bay look bad, they made it worth questioning whether the Buccaneers’ defense can stop anybody at all.
Questions on the defense head in every direction. Mike Smith’s scheme will be brought into question, as will Jason Licht’s decision-making with draftees and free agents. Is the defense undermanned, poorly-schemed, or both? This is the painful question that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will need to answer during their bye week.
In their two losses, Tampa Bay is being exposed as a team that has one clear strength and, at the moment, little else.
With five solid pass targets, the Buccaneers’ passing game will be dangerous at all times. Even in Sunday’s blowout loss, Tampa Bay flipped the field with a number of deep passes. This gets a lot of attention because, at the moment, the NFL is very obviously a league dominated by the passer. The Bucs will help a fantasy football team, and produce their fair share of highlights.
Outside of the passing game, however, the Bucs look directionless. The defense, especially the secondary, is easily beaten. The Chicago Bears do not have the NFL’s most loaded offense, and they utterly torched Mike Smith’s unit. They burn through kickers like race cars go through tires.
The running game is almost non-existent, and on Sunday the only wrinkle Ronald Jones II added in his NFL debut was getting the ball immediately on entering the game, the kind of obvious play that makes it hard for a running back to get going.
Coming into the bye week like this gives the coaching staff a gargantuan task: They have to create a new dimension to their football team, and if they don’t do it in the next two weeks the Buccaneers’ promising 2-0 start could turn out to be nothing more than a mirage.
If this is to happen, the most likely route is to add a running game to make the offense even stronger. This will not help the woeful defense, though some NFL experience for Vita Vea might manifest itself in an improved pass rush soon.
The defense may be without answers, beyond getting healthier with the bye week. There are Buccaneers fans out there calling for Mike Smith’s head, but even if the team were to sacrifice him to appease the fanbase, two weeks is not enough time for some mystery coordinator to implement a new system. The secondary is loaded with rookies after all, and rookies have enough trouble learning one system, let alone two.
The fact is that while the Buccaneers’ coaching staff may in fact have had a worse game than even the Buccaneers’ players, drastic changes are unlikely. The Glazer Family has never fired a coach during a season. After the 2011 team seemed to quit on Raheem Morris, Morris played out the string. Greg Schiano committed fireable offenses, but was not handed his pink slip until the season ended. To their credit, this is not the kind of ownership that reacts too strongly to a bad game, even a disaster like the Buccaneers walked into on Sunday.
While Dirk Koetter might have fired himself after Sunday, as he implied in his press conference after the game, he still had a job on Monday morning, as did Smith and the rest of the coaching staff. The remainder of the season is likely to be about that coaching staff as much as it will be about answering questions surrounding Jameis Winston.
Other thoughts from around the NFL:
-If the game between the Lions and the Cowboys is a glimpse of what we’re going to see from both teams on Thanksgiving, maybe people should watch that Tiger Woods-Phil Mickelson showdown on Turkey Day instead.
-The Patriots cycle continues. Every time they’re written off after a slow start, they blow the doors off whatever team they face next. This is the sort of thing a person can set their watch to.
-If the Buccaneers’ uniforms were inspired by an alarm clock, the New Orleans Saints’ white uniforms have numbers stolen from the Showcase Showdown.
-The Cleveland Browns were handed a loss on Sunday care of a replay review that changed the spotting of a football. Nobody but the referee who made the call knows exactly what he saw or how he saw it, since nobody seems to agree with the call. Once again, the “insurmountable evidence” line about replay in sports is shown to be a lie.
-Then again, perhaps Jon Gruden was owed a game-changing replay in his favor after all these years.
The clearest takeaway any Bucs fans should be aware of is that this is not the kind of game that can be put on the quarterbacking situation.
All the talk during the week was about Ryan Fitzpatrick and Jameis Winston. Arguments and debates raged about who would be the more appropriate signal-caller to start on Sunday, and in the end it didn’t matter one bit.
Neither passer was on top of his game. Ryan Fitzpatrick missed a couple of passes he should not have missed, and Jameis Winston threw an interception late trying to do too much with the football as is tradition. More importantly, the offensive line that had been so good in the first two weeks and serviceable in week three’s loss could not hold the Bears back with any consistency.
Fitzpatrick spent a lot of time under pressure, throwing a few passes with hands in his face. Winston threw an interception when his arm was hit as he threw the ball. This should be a rude awakening to the quarterback worshippers, those who award wins and losses to those under center and think of every football matchup in terms of the ringleaders.
Including most of the position’s representatives in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, quarterbacks must be put in a position to succeed in order to do so. On Sunday, the only thing Tampa Bay had for their passers was a wealth of progressions that the Bears’ defense did not allow them to read through. Blocking never came, nor did any adjustments. The quarterback was replaced at halftime, but it simply demonstrated how little the quarterback mattered in the blowout loss. This was a team with no blocking, no tackling, no pass coverage, next to no pass rush, and a minimal running game. They weren’t going to be able to pass themselves out of trouble on Sunday.
There is no more need to discuss the quarterback moving forward. With Winston entering the game in the second half, Ryan Fitzpatrick has already reverted to the backup role on the depth chart. Questions answered. Jameis Winston will be the quarterback until something happens.
Of course, the wisdom of making the Bears prepare for two different quarterbacks and then showing them two different quarterbacks can be brought under the spotlight. After a week of guessing, the Buccaneers made all the guessing irrelevant.
In all, that’s the story of Sunday afternoon’s drubbing: The Chicago Bears were prepared for what the Buccaneers were going to do. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were not prepared at all.