The Buccaneers haven’t lived up to their billing, so what now?
Bucs fans, I know it has been a hard season to this point. Your beloved pewter pirates lost their bye week in week one due to a hurricane, they got blown out by the Vikings and their backup quarterback in week three, some adventures in kicking caused them to scrape by a winless and reeling Giants team, the same kicking adventures likely cost them a Thursday night game against New England, and the Buccaneers have not won since.
Throughout this four game losing streak, it seems like there are problems all over the field. In week five, Nick Folk missed enough kicks that he’s no longer with the team. In week six, the defense got obliterated by the Arizona Cardinals. The same defense then went to Buffalo and gave up thirty points to a Bills offense that had been struggling. Finally, just when it seemed like the offense might be a bright spot, the Buccaneers laid an egg offensively at home last week against Carolina.
In short, October took the Bucs from “sleeper contender” to “asleep at the wheel.” Understandably, Bucs faithful, you appear quite upset. Players were booed on their way down the tunnel after Sunday’s game, and having heard it firsthand I can assure you people were using stronger words than “boo” as well.
Now the Buccaneers are 2-5, in the NFC South basement by two games, and all three units are reeling as the Bucs head to New Orleans to play the resurgent Saints. What you need, Tampa Bay, is a guide for navigating the rest of what has already been a long football season.
To start, let’s review a few frequently asked questions.
At 2-5, is it time to give up on the playoffs?
The answer here, unfortunately, is “probably.” A generic 2-5 team has about a 3% chance of making the NFL playoffs, but the Bucs aren’t a generic 2-5 team. They’re 2-5 in a division with the last two NFC Champions, both of whom have winning records, and a Saints team whose coach and quarterback have the rings to prove their mettle. It is not mathematically impossible for Tampa Bay, but it is highly unlikely that a turnaround is coming.
To have any kind of honest shot in a division this loaded, the Buccaneers will need to go 10-6 or better. Having already lost one game within the division, they cannot afford another. That means winning this week, sweeping Atlanta, and winning on the road in Carolina for week 16. Because of tiebreakers, if the Bucs have any room to lose another game it would have to come in either week 10 or week 11 when Tampa Bay plays the Jets at home and the Dolphins on the road respectively. There is nothing in the Buccaneers’ season to this point that indicates this could happen.
Okay, okay, don’t go Jim Mora on us now. So does that mean this season is a step backward?
To this point, the Buccaneers have undoubtedly gone in the wrong direction. The defense has shown major problems, and the offense has demonstrated that there are still things it needs to work on as well.
In 2016, Tampa Bay went 9-7. To me, all that matters in terms of franchises is whether they improve on their record from last season. The Bucs would need to go 7-2 from here on out to match their 2016 record. While not impossible, that seems unlikely.
What’s wrong with the offense?
After scoring just three points at home against Carolina, a performance for which Jameis Winston felt the need to apologize to the fanbase, it’s clear that the offense isn’t quite clicking.
Make no mistake: This is not Jameis Winston’s fault. Winston might not be the finest quarterback in the league, but the Buccaneers’ problems start with the offensive line. The Bucs can’t block, which means they can’t run the ball effectively.
Doug Martin has had to dodge a defender in the backfield nearly every time he has received a handoff in 2017. That is no way to build a productive running game. Switching Martin out for some draft pick next season won’t help under these circumstances, because no running back can block for himself.
Without a consistent run game, Dirk Koetter has been prone to just not calling handoffs for a prolonged period of game time. While this is understandable, it means the Bucs do not have a balanced offense. Without balance, it is too easy for professional defenses and professional coaches to prepare for the passing game, no matter how clever it may be.
What’s wrong with the defense?
The best way to sum it up is to quote Warren Zevon: Hit Somebody!
The Buccaneers’ defense cannot rush the passer. Without pressure on the quarterback, shortcomings in the secondary are easily exposed. This minimizes the impact that the linebackers can have, and that’s a problem when linebackers are the best part of a defense.
Mike Smith’s schemes have come under scrutiny, but it’s unclear whether they’re ineffective or if every defense imaginable would be ineffective with this little pressure on the quarterback. Gerald McCoy has no help along the defensive front, the secondary has been questionable enough to make blitzing a risky proposition, and it leads to Tampa Bay having a major problem.
A scheme problem can be easily fixed. A personnel problem is much trickier. The Buccaneers, it seems, have a personnel problem.
If this season’s a step back, what can we watch to gauge progress?
The run blocking is unlikely to improve as the offensive line will remain the same. The same is true of the pass rush. However, it’s a good time to watch Jameis Winston’s development as a professional.
When pressured, Winston forgets some important things about football, like how you cannot throw the ball through a defensive back. Interceptions, often blooper reel material, can be expected when defenses get to Jameis Winston.
Every time he throws the ball away with a defender in his face, that’s a good sign.
Every time he puts the ball away and takes a sack, that’s a good sign.
Every time he puts up a wounded duck that is easily picked off, that’s a problem.
Remember: The greatest “gunslinger” style quarterback in NFL history was on several championship level squads and only won one ring. Some of those campaigns ended on an ugly interception from Brett Favre himself. As talented as Favre was, his mentality sometimes undermined his teams. Jameis Winston needs to not play like a gunslinger. Outside of Favre, it’s a style that simply doesn’t work.
Should the Bucs have been sellers at the trade deadline?
This has become a popular position for a certain kind of fan, likely the type who is a Bucs fan on Sunday and a fan of a college program the rest of the week.
The logic goes, if the Buccaneers need offensive and defensive linemen, what they need in the short term is draft picks. Offer this player, or that player, and maybe Tampa Bay could land an extra second round pick, but this is problematic.
For one, draft picks sound much better than actual players who are drafted will ever be. It’s a way of prolonging optimism through April, but the important part of football season takes place in January. Beyond that, to get draft picks, one needs to give up players in demand, and right now Tampa Bay cannot afford to surrender talent now for talent tomorrow.
Beyond that, draft picks are rookies, and rookies are not fully developed in the NFL. Such players need to learn the difference between college football and the real thing.
Were there a pass rusher available, I would have preferred the Bucs to buy at the deadline. Not because this season is worthy of a push, but any chance to jump on a pass rusher is a welcome one. That’s a unique skill and a tough thing to find. Some of you are wishing for Tampa Bay to use their first draft pick on a pass rusher, so why not just trade that pick for one we already know can do the job? That would avoid the risk of producing another Adrian Clayborn.
Who is on the hot seat?
At this moment, it does not seem that any coaches or executives are on a hot seat. Dirk Koetter is just in his second season, and he was brought in to develop a quarterback who isn’t leaving anytime soon. It’s nearly unthinkable that he would be fired at this point, but of course there are nine games left.
Mike Smith is a popular target of fans’ ire, and in many ways he has looked less than stellar, but the defense has had its moments. At home, Tampa Bay’s defense has looked decent to good at times. They held the mighty Patriots to fewer than twenty points. The Panthers only scored seventeen last week. Just a year ago, he was a head coaching candidate. It’s likely too early to cut bait with Smith.
Some talk has pointed a finger at Jason Licht, particularly in how few defensive players he has drafted and players he hasn’t signed. The problem with blaming Licht is simple: There are only so many draft picks to go around.
Licht inherited a team that needed a quarterback, needed wide receivers, needed tight ends, lacked a middle linebacker, and had nothing going for it on special teams. Fixing those problems has taken up a lot of cap space and draft room. Spending effort on the offensive and defensive lines would have stalled this. The fact is, building a great football team takes a lot of time and patience.
Let me get this straight: You keep calling this season a disappointment, but don’t want any heads to roll. How does that work?
I think too many NFL fans believe in magic.
For various reasons, football fans are conditioned to believe that one draft pick, or one coaching change, can turn a bad team into a great one overnight. This has infected the Buccaneers and leads to two problems:
1: There is an unhealthy expectation around Jameis Winston that he will singlehandedly win games and lead the team to glory without assistance. This is why every poor offensive performance comes with a discussion of what’s wrong with Winston.
2: There is an equally unhealthy expectation that all the problems the Buccaneers had before promoting Dirk Koetter can be directly tied to Greg Schiano, Lovie Smith, or Mark Dominik. All three of them are out of jobs for good reason, but blaming them entirely masked harder to fix problems.
The Buccaneers won’t get good overnight. The offense will have its moments, because the passing game is loaded with talent, but because magic isn’t real they will not realize their potential until they get better at blocking for the run game. The defense will struggle to rush the passer and to cover receivers, but those problems will remain with a new DC should Tampa Bay opt for one.
I’ve even heard Bucs fans start to mumble about moving on from Winston, which is hilarious given how hard it is to find a competent quarterback in today’s league. People like that don’t really want a new quarterback, they want Harry Potter.
The Bucs beat the Saints if: Jameis Winston and his passing targets look like they did in the second half against Buffalo, and just a little bit of blitzing throws Drew Brees off his game.
The Saints win if: Winston and company look like they did against Carolina.
Bottom line: Whether the season is lost or not, the Buccaneers cannot just let the wheels fall off. They have to stay patient, and focus on the long term picture.