Tampa Bay Came Within A Field Goal Attempt Of Forcing Overtime
Patrick Murray came onto the field with five seconds left on the clock and the Buccaneers on the Atlanta 37 yard line.
The Fordham product, Tampa Bay’s third kicker of 2017 dating back to training camp and the failed Roberto Aguayo Project, has been among the Buccaneers’ finest players in 2017. A make would have sent the remaining fans at Raymond James Stadium into a frenzy, forcing overtime with a Falcons team that came in needing a win to keep their postseason hopes high.
Murray’s long field goal sailed just right of the goalposts, long enough but not straight enough. The Falcons escaped Tampa with a 24-21 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. It completed a season sweep for Atlanta, At 9-5, the Falcons remain in the 6 seed, in position to make the NFL playoffs if circumstances don’t change over the final two weeks of the season.
The performance for Tampa Bay, facing a team who needed the win, shows that there is going to be a lot of promise in the Buccaneers’ roster coming into the 2018 season. Of course, that was true of 2017 as well.
Bucs Continue to Show Up
Tickets to NFL games, even NFL games hosted by teams that haven’t made the playoffs in ten years and won’t make the playoffs this year, are generally expensive purchases as entertainment spending goes. People paid top dollar to attend Monday night’s game between the Buccaneers and Falcons, taking time out of their holiday preparations or simply their leisure time to come support the local team even after they’ve been eliminated from anything of note.
The kind of fan who pays that money this late in the season is often robbed of a competitive game by a lethargic team just waiting to fire their coach, draft some new players, and start over again at training camp. In some cases you might call it “tanking,” in others you might say a team quit on their coach. The 2017 Buccaneers fit in neither of those boxes, continuing to play hard for a coach likely on the hot seat whether or not there is a draft position at risk by their doing so.
It says something about Dirk Koetter’s hold on this team that they show no signs whatsoever of abandoning their head coach. Koetter has taken a lot of heat from fans, analysts, columnists like myself, and football people everywhere. His team, however, is still willing to run through a wall for the guy.
Six players left the game on Monday night and didn’t return. Add to that an injured Lavonte David and Gerald McCoy, as well as Doug Martin being suspended for a violation of team rules, and the Buccaneers were all but playing shorthanded on Monday night.
Despite all the injuries, Tampa Bay held Atlanta close throughout the game, never trailing by more than ten points and threatening to tie the game or take the lead at various points, including the final play of the game.
Back when I was in college, a hockey coach named Greg Cronin told me and an entire room of young reporters that “there is no such thing as a moral victory.” In fact, those were the very first words Cronin uttered in his introductory press conference as a head coach. Those words are true in hockey, and they’re a defining mantra in the National Football League. There is no moral victory for the Bucs to take from Monday night’s game. They lost. They lost with opportunities to score late in the game that they didn’t capitalize on. They lost with a couple of defensive drives where an improved Buccaneers unit couldn’t keep up with their injuries. Tampa Bay drops to 4-10. Nobody loses double digit games in an NFL season by random chance. It’s a disappointing team in its finest moments; an outright bad one in bleaker times.
Half Full or Half Empty?
The narrative to come out of tonight’s game, for the fans, depends on your outlook.
The optimist will point to Jameis Winston’s performance in the game. Statistically, he was excellent. Winston went 27/35 for 299 yards with three touchdowns, no picks, and only a pair of passes that displayed the bad habits he’s had since his college days under Jimbo Fisher. The deep ball was sharp, including a 42 yard touchdown pass to Evans that doubles as his best throw of the 2017 season. The decision making was as good as it’s ever been. Eleven Bucs caught passes from Jameis Winston on the night.
The eye test is even kinder to the young quarterback. Winston showed his improvisational skills, stepping aside from pass rushers, creating time with his feet, and throwing high-percentage passes to suddenly open men in broken plays. The comparisons to Ben Roethlisberger that we heard on draft day suddenly looked somewhat accurate. Even when he decided to tuck and run, he made smart decisions and didn’t open himself to injuries.
The pessimist will acknowledge all that, credit where due, and then point out that even with the most important position in football holding down the fort the Bucs still couldn’t pull off the victory.
The optimist will focus on the team’s willingness to play for Dirk Koetter, suggesting that if he doesn’t lose his team he shouldn’t lose his job. The pessimist will point out that Koetter went from a nine win season to what could be just a four win season with signs all over the place that the strategy this team is employing is simply not working.
The optimist will point out that the Buccaneers have lost a number of “toss up” games like this one, week 5 against New England, and last week at home against Detroit. The pessimist will remind people that Tampa Bay would only be 7-7 if they had all their close games go their way.
Gruden’s Ceremony Brings Welcome Nostalgia
On a night where Jon Gruden was enshrined in the Buccaneers’ ring of honor, people came into the game expecting the Court of Public Opinion to rule on Dirk Koetter. Koetter’s tenure as Buccaneers head coach has come under fire for about the last month. An increasing number of fans from week to week have called for the man to be fired at the end of the season if not earlier. Complicating matters further, many of the same fans have the same ideal target for his replacement: Jon Gruden.
Gruden has been out of coaching long enough, and has turned down enough offers, that there is a word for Jon Gruden-related coaching rumors: “Grumors.” The Grumors have hit Tampa Bay en masse for the first time, and they’re not limited to the fans. Several NFL analysts, including some Tampa Bay sportswriting notables like JoeBucsFan’s Ira Kaufman, believe that a Gruden return is entirely possible under the right circumstances and wonder if Tampa Bay might kick those tires.
The Bucs, then, had to come out strong and play a complete football game just to keep the Monday Night Football crowd from chanting about a coaching replacement.
It was a star-studded night as Bucs games go. Much of the 2002 Buccaneers team showed up to the game, including Hall of Famers Warren Sapp and Derrick Brooks as well as Hall of Fame hopefuls like Ronde Barber. Gruden wasn’t just there to give a speech at halftime and reenact the first Buccaneer touchdown of Super Bowl XXXVII, he was announcing the game for ESPN. Tony Dungy was there as well, holding court in a luxury suite with his family and wishing Gruden the best.
For fans who, again, did not get in for free, this softened the blow of the cost of admission. For all the losing Tampa Bay has done since 1976, a night of reminders that there are some really great moments in Buccaneers history is occasionally necessary and always refreshing. On Monday night, the team with the lowest regular season win percentage in NFL history got to remember that it’s tied for seventeenth in the league in the only statistic that ultimately matters: Lombardi Trophies won.
Jon Gruden said his words at halftime, amid the loudest ovation all night. He name-checked the greats who came out to see him inducted, and those who came before him like John McKay. Remember, McKay’s running backs coach in 1976 was Jon’s father Jim Gruden.
To reenact the first touchdown in Super Bowl XXXVII, Gruden did something that a personable coach and broadcaster has trouble doing: Jon Gruden ceded the microphone. Gene Deckerhoff, pirate-like voice of the Bucs, brought the ceremony home with his call of the play, familiar to anyone who ever listened to him in the Alstott days:
“Alstott, up the gut! Touchdown Tampa Bay!”
It may have been for show, but nearing the end of a seemingly interminable season that reminder of Buccaneers history was badly needed at Raymond James Stadium.