The Not Ready For Prime Time Football Players

The Buccaneers Lost Slowly And Painfully Against New England

Jameis Winston believed his own lack of execution was the difference Thursday night. (Tim Williams/Sports Talk Florida)

Thursday night had an atmosphere that Raymond James Stadium hasn’t seen in a while, The visiting Patriots fans, coming to town for the first time in decades, were a part of this, but this was no Rays game against the Red Sox.  Bucs fans came out in force as well, entirely prepared for some back-and-forth with the visitors from the jump.

Why not?  It was a tremendous game for both teams.  The Buccaneers fans had their sights set about as high as they’ve been since 2003, while the Patriots had a tough start to the season and could use a boost.  Add in that it was the first time the Patriots have ever played a regular season game at Raymond James Stadium,

Unfortunately, the enthusiasm of a fanbase that has gone a while since being enthusiastic about much of anything wound up being the closest thing to a win that the Buccaneers had.  The Bucs lost to the Patriots by a 19-14 score, with kicker Nick Folk missing three field goals that more than made up for the difference in the game.  A last second try for the end zone fell short, and the New England Patriots escaped with a win.

Tailgaters supporting both the Buccaneers and Patriots got to the Raymond James Stadium parking lots early Thursday afternoon. (Tim Williams/Sports Talk Florida)

The game got started with a rare occurrence:  An unforced error from Tom Brady.  On the Patriots’ fourth play from scrimmage, Brady overthrew his receiver into the waiting arms of Justin Evans.  “I mean if I was Tom Brady, I would throw at a rookie for his first start also.”  Evans’ candor was refreshing, as the postgame comments were generally and understandably deflated.

Other than that the first quarter was largely uneventful.  The Buccaneers’ offense really never showed up in the quarter.  Winston completed two passes for twenty yards.  The running backs combined for nine yards.  That’s a bad quarter of offensive football, and the Bucs were fortunate to only be down 3-0 against a Patriots team that tends to take advantage of the opportunities they’re given.

In the second quarter, the Buccaneers’ offense arrived.  More specifically, Doug Martin arrived.  After a Bucs drive was extended with a Patriots hands-to-the-face penalty on a third down, Martin took a second quarter drive over, putting together 48 yards on that drive alone to get the Buccaneers their first touchdown and first lead, 7-3.

The Patriots responded to the Bucs’ touchdown with their best offensive drive of the game to that point, unwrapping a quick drive that ended in a Chris Hogan touchdown catch.  It provided an excellent reminder of just how hard it is to beat the Patriots under Brady and Belichick that they would respond so fast.  If the Buccaneers were going to win Thursday night, they would need their first touchdown drive to set the tone for the rest of the game.

The play everybody had been waiting for all week was a Jameis Winston deep ball to Desean Jackson.  They tried for the first time late in the second quarter.  It resulted in a near interception being dropped.

After a Buccaneers three and out, a big Patriots punt return, coupled with an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, set New England up inside the Bucs’ 30.  Brady and the Patriots promptly marched the ball inside the 10, but the Buccaneers made a good showing at the goal line to force fourth down.  Another Stephen Gostkowski field goal made the score 13-7.

Before halftime, there was a skirmish on the sideline involving several players from both teams.  That was immediately followed by two straight roughing the passer penalties on Winston near midfield.  The extra thirty yards in penalties set up a Nick Folk field goal attempt that stretches the definition of “attempt.”

The third quarter was a master class on how Bill Belichick’s teams can frustrate, wear down, and eventually crush opponents.  The offense moved methodically into field goal range on their first possession.  The defense, one of the worst in the NFL, was holding the Buccaneers down, but the Buccaneers helped by entering desperation mode the moment the second half started.

Doug Martin was excellent when he got the ball.  The moment the Buccaneers fell behind, he stopped getting the ball very much, preferring to give the ball to Winston and tell him to win the game by himself.  Not surprisingly, Winston started throwing a bit harder, overthrowing more receivers and bouncing passes off the hands of others.  It was a game adjustment seemingly designed to invite Winston to fall into bad habits, and one Bill Belichick had zero trouble with.

Nick Folk was no help either.  At the end of the first half, he missed a 56 yard attempt.  In the third quarter, he missed a makeable attempt.  In the fourth, he missed a chip shot from 31.  At the time, the difference in the game were nine points, all nine of which he left on the field.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers kicker Nick Folk (2) reacts after missing a field goal against the New England Patriots during the fourth quarter of an NFL football game against the New England Patriots Thursday, Oct. 5, 2017, in Tampa, Fla. Holding for the Buccaneers is Bryan Anger. Photo: AP Photo/Phelan Ebenhack.

“We should have won the game 20-19.  That one’s on me.”  Credit to Folk for answering questions at his locker after the game, being that the questions were just a step short of so have you thought about a new line of work yet in nature.

Bill Belichick was asked about the importance of having a reliable kicker and he had this to say:  “If I don’t feel confident in putting the guy out there then, you know, I should have somebody else do that–at any position.”  The Patriot Way is the phrase Boston media has given to the New England method of not acting out of loyalty to players but rather out of the best interests of the team on the field at all times.  The great coach was diplomatic, but if it were his decision Nick Folk would be unemployed by the time you’re reading this column.

Thursday night was a game in which the Buccaneers were handed opportunity after opportunity, and they kindly handed each of them back.  The famous line from On the Waterfront comes to mind:  They coulda been a contender.

That’s what was in front of Tampa Bay.  Had they beaten the Patriots, there would be no doubt that the Buccaneers were truly contenders for at least a playoff berth if not a Super Bowl appearance.  They had opportunities to do that, with a Patriots offense that didn’t look like itself without Julian Edelman or Rob Gronkowski, but they just never seemed to be able to knock it in.

The Buccaneers’ offense played a thoroughly disappointing game.  Against a Patriots defense that had come in having given up the most points in the NFL, the Bucs mustered just seven points in the first 57 minutes of game clock.  Winston was off his game, but the Bucs also reverted into Panic Mode coming out of halftime, putting their quarterback in a position where he was always more likely to fail than succeed.

The last drive for Tampa Bay was, like last week, a great chance for Jameis Winston to put an exclamation mark on his development.  Like last week, he marched the Buccaneers right down the field, getting the ball down to the 20 yard line with two seconds to go.  The game ended there, as Winston threw too early to OJ Howard, who never saw the ball.

Malcolm Glazer was honored at halftime as the Buccaneers put the late owner’s name in their Ring of Honor. (Tim Williams/Sports Talk Florida)

This is the kind of game that contenders pull out.  The Bucs lacked their best game offensively, and in many ways it was one of the worst they’ve had since drafting Jameis Winston.  Yet their undermanned defense played an excellent game, holding one of the best offenses you’ll ever see to just 19 points.  It was the offense and special teams that let them down in the end.

The Patriots live to fight another day, 3-2 now despite their early struggles and a Bills loss from being tied for their division lead once again.  No, Bill Belichick didn’t will Nick Folk to miss those kicks, nor did he force Winston to throw at OJ Howard’s back.  But the Patriots got three points on their final possession to make the Bucs have to score a touchdown.  The Patriots held a second half lead from beginning to end.  Of course then, it was the New England Patriots who prevailed.

This is one of the things that makes them a championship caliber team.  They came in with one of the worst defenses in the league, and they had Tampa Bay flailing throughout.

“You win and lose as a team, but the defense did their fair share to get it done,” said coach Dirk Koetter after the game.

More from Koetter:  “Third and four, Desean (Jackson) ran that little double move up our sideline…a couple feet off, that’s a sixty yard touchdown.”

The Buccaneers need the deep ball.  They signed Desean Jackson specifically to add the deep ball to Jameis Winston’s quiver.  They try that deep ball once per game, Jackson getting behind the defense and Winston overthrowing him.  That play has to connect for these Buccaneers to be as good as they expected to be.  Until they unlock that, their offense will be limited.

Looking ahead, the Buccaneers travel to Arizona to take on the Cardinals, a team they need to beat, especially after this loss.  That deep pass will be critical to work out against Arizona so it can be used against later opponents.  Winston knows it too.

“I just gotta execute.  That’s the main thing.”  Winston repeated that word, execute, throughout his press conference.  Bucs fans know that word well, one of the franchise’s most famous quotes revolves around it.  When the word execute or any variant thereof enters the conversation, it means the Buccaneers have lost a disappointing game and are looking for answers.  In this case it wasn’t a funny answer from John McKay but Winston repeating what he knows is his missive.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver DeSean Jackson (11) gets past New England Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler after a reception during the fourth quarter of an NFL football game Thursday, Oct. 5, 2017, in Tampa, Fla. Photo: AP Photo/Phelan Ebenhack.

This is a passer’s league as the NFL stands right now.  To win, your quarterback has to be on his game from the opening whistle to the last second.  Tampa Bay’s quarterback, when on his game, has shown remarkable ability to salvage situations and win football games.  This week, he had the ball in his hands and a chance to win, and the Patriots came away with the victory.

Yes, Nick Folk’s errors would have more than made up the deficit, but he was by no means alone.  Both Winston and Koetter used the phrase “slip away” in their press conferences.  Few phrases would sum it up better.  The game slipped away.  The defense had it, the offense had moments, but every gift the Bucs were given was refused in the end.  The New England Patriots did something they almost never do:  They handed their opponent a chance to win.  This time, that opponent handed it back.

Reasons for optimism:  The Buccaneers have a dangerous two minute drill.  In addition, the defense played as well as they could have been expected to play, shorthanded against a tough Patriots team.  If Mike Smith and company put together games like this moving forward, the Buccaneers will be a tough out every week.

Cause for concern:  When down a score in the second half, the Buccaneers went into desperation mode far earlier than they had any business doing.  This meant taking carries away from Doug Martin, who had been effective, and asking Jameis Winston to be a superhero, which led to overthrows and too much mustard.  Dirk Koetter has put together a great offense in Tampa Bay, but every time he puts Winston in that position he undermines his own excellent work.

Outlook for next week:  The Bucs get some much needed rest before traveling to Arizona next Sunday.  They’re in trouble right now at 2-2, but a good way to solve that is to win games a team is supposed to win.  Next week’s game at Arizona is a game the Buccaneers are supposed to win.  If this week showed the Bucs have a long way to go to be on the Patriots’ level, struggling next week might have people talking about whether Tampa Bay has taken a step backward.

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.