Monday Column: The Bucs Were in Playoff Contention, and Then….

Let’s flash back to November 22 for a moment. The Bucs were in Philadelphia, and turned in their best performance of the season, a 45-17 thrashing of the Eagles. Tampa Bay improved to 5-5, and was very much in the playoff hunt in the NFC.

Today, the Buccaneers are 6-9, and will miss the playoffs for the ninth consecutive season.

So what happened? Since that impressive performance at Lincoln Financial Field, the Bucs have dropped games to the Colts, Saints, Rams and Bears. We’re not talking Patriots, Panthers or Cardinals here. We’re talking about games that were winnable, and yet Lovie Smith’s team didn’t get the job done, aside from a victory over a Falcons’ team that just knocked off Carolina.

The biggest disappointment down the stretch has arguably been the biggest one all season: the play of the defense. Now we know why Smith says he needs his defenders to force turnovers. When they don’t, the other team seems to march down the field at will, particularly through the air, regardless of whether the quarterback is Drew Brees or Case Keenum. The secondary is awful, regardless of who’s back there. There’s no question the suspension of Kwon Alexander hurts. But I can’t picture the loss of one player having that much of an impact.

Tampa Bay is -4 in the turnover ratio. Somehow it feels worse than that. Over the past five games, the Bucs have forced a grand total of one takeaway.

Should Lovie Smith be fired at the end of the season? I think he should, but my gut says he won’t. The team did triple its win total from a year ago. But consider this: Smith is calling the shots on defense this year, and I have seen absolutely no improvement in this unit from 2014. None.

Smith is 8-23 in two seasons in Tampa. His predecessor, Greg Schiano, went 11-21 before receiving his pink slip. If Schiano got fired for that record, then why should Smith get a free pass? There’s a growing “rumbling” (for lack of a better term) on blogs and social media that the fans would like to see offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter promoted to head coach. He has done a nice job this year with an offense that includes a rookie quarterback, and Jameis Winston wouldn’t have to learn a entirely new offense. So why not give Koetter a shot? You’d keep the rhythm on offense, and it would allow them to give the other side of the ball a much-needed shakeup. There is talent on defense (Lavonte David for one) but the scheme is not working out.

One final note: the Bucs’ season finale against Carolina is now scheduled for 4:25 p.m. instead of 1 p.m.   Carolina is coming off its first loss of the year, and needs to win to clinch home-field advantage.  Why can’t they just play the game at 1:00 and get the torture over with?

 

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…..and the Bucs Lose Again

In football, when you turn the ball over more than your opponent, you generally lose.

On Sunday, the Buccaneers turned it over three times. And Tampa Bay lost to Chicago at Ray-Jay, 26-21

All of the miscues were costly. The first turnover was Doug Martin fumbling after catching a pass. That led to a Bears’ field goal. The second was Jameis Winston throwing a pick down by the goal line, ending a long drive in which the Bucs could’ve extended a one-point lead. Then late in the third quarter, Martin coughed it up again. Chicago went on to score the go-ahead touchdown, and the Bears never trailed after that.

Then there was the bad shotgun snap that meant a longer field goal attempt for Connor Barth, which he missed. The kicking situation is suddenly starting to look like it did at the beginning of the year.

Lovie Smith prides himself on winning the turnover battle. Consider this: the Bucs only have one takeaway in the past five games. Tampa Bay’s defense came into the game allowing the opposing quarterbacks to complete nearly 70% of their passes. On Sunday, Jay Cutler was successful on 74% of his attempts (20-for-27.)

More rants coming in the Monday Column.

Photo Courtesy: buccaneers.com

 

Some Late Thoughts on the Bucs’ Loss to the Rams

So it’s been a few days since the Bucs lost to the Rams on Thursday night. But I’m just now able to offer some commentary on the game, so here goes:

Without question, the top order of business in the offseason for Tampa Bay should be revamping the secondary. Simply put, it is awful. I am sick and tired of seeing the Buccaneers make ho-hum quarterbacks look like superstars. On Thursday night, it was Case Keenum who looked like Tom Brady. This season, the Bucs are allowing opposing quarterbacks to complete about 70% of their passes. On Thursday, Keenum completed 82%. This is Case Kennum we’re talking about!

Tampa Bay was penalized nine times. In other words, it was a typical night for the most undisciplined team in football.

Don’t be fooled by the Bucs gaining over 500 yards of total offense. Most of that came in the fourth quarter, when St. Louis had a big lead. If you like fantasy football, then okay. I don’t play it, nor do I care about it.

I can’t finish this article without mentioning those uniforms. Apparently this is something the NFL has been doing in the Thursday night games (it goes to show how much I watch these matchups.) But I like my football without ketchup and mustard, thank you very much.

On to Chicago…

Photo Courtesy: Getty Images

Monday Column: Bucs’ Playoff Dreams Are Just That

It was nice to at least dream about the possibility of going to the playoffs, if only for a couple of weeks.

Then Sunday happened.

For a little while, the Bucs had me and the rest of the fans believing. After starting 2-4, they won four of their next six to get back to .500. But they haven’t been able to get over that hump. It’s been three years since Tampa Bay has had more wins than losses at any point in a season.

And in case you didn’t know, the Bucs are once again the most penalized team in the NFL. They’ve moved one flag ahead of Buffalo in the number of penalized accepted (125.)

So there will be no playoffs for the Bucs this year. Sure, they’re mathematically still alive. But realistically – forget about it.

I have no idea which Tampa Bay team is going to show up on Thursday night against the Rams. As an aside: with the exception of Thanksgiving Day, I am not a fan of these Thursday night games at all. I will go on the record saying that, whether the Bucs win or lose, not to mention my work schedule doesn’t allow me to watch such games.

A note to my readers: because of the Thursday night game – and my aforementioned work schedule – I probably won’t get around to posting anything about the Bucs/Rams contest until the weekend. But I’ll give y’all some quality reading material at some point long after we know the final result.

Ugh! Bucs’ Playoff Hopes Dashed By Saints

Simply put, that stunk.

There were the Buccaneers, with a chance to creep closer to Minnesota in the Wild Card hunt. Instead, they laid an egg in a 24-17 home loss to the Saints at Ray-Jay. They’re now two games behind the Vikings and Seahawks with three games remaining.

What cost the Bucs against New Orleans? Well, it was the same mistakes that we’ve seen over and over again: bad play in the secondary, too many critical (and some stupid) penalties, and questionable coaching.

Tampa Bay’s defense let Drew Brees have his way pretty much all day. He threw 41 passes. And given the sieve that is the Bucs’ secondary, I’m surprised he didn’t throw it 50 times. They let the Saints convert 12 of 17 third-down conversions. That’s unacceptable for a team fighting for its playoff life.

The Bucs had eight penalties for 80 yards (amazingly, the Saints outdid them in that department with 12.) It started on Tampa Bay’s first offensive play: a long completion to Vincent Jackson that was nullified by a holding call. Then there was Mike Evans getting back-to-back flags in the fourth quarter for pass interference, followed by a personal foul. Mr. Evans needs to get his head in the right place, because we the fans are not happy with him these days. I heard the boos myself during the Atlanta game last week.  And just when it looked like the Bucs would get the ball back for one more shot, a defensive holding call gave New Orleans a fresh set of downs.

The play-calling? The Bucs were facing the worst defense (in terms of yards allowed per game) in the NFL. New Orleans is dead-last against the run. So why the heck did Doug Martin only get eleven carries? He was averaging more than seven yards a carry, and the game wasn’t really out of reach until the very end. And why did Evans – dropsies and all – not even see a pass thrown in his direction until the second half?

Oh, and don’t throw the ball to Donteea Dye (who?) anymore. That was a critical drop late in the game that would’ve kept the potential game-tying drive alive. I know Vincent Jackson was out with an injury, but wasn’t there a better option?

It was a disappointing, frustrating game. I’ve seen so many.

Photo Courtesy: buccaneers.com

 

My Trip to Tampa: Thoughts on Bucs/Falcons and Playoffs

By now, you know the result of the Buccaneers/Falcons game on Sunday. Tampa Bay won it, 23-19. This was also the game I chose to make my annual trip south for, and it was worth it. Here are my thoughts on what I heard and saw, followed by some playoff talk:

This game had it all: key plays, turnovers, lead changes, drama in the fourth quarter, you name it.

The play of the day (and of the Bucs’ season so far) was the run by Jameis Winston on 3rd and 19 on the game-winning drive. I was sitting at the opposite end of the field, so at first I didn’t realize how great it really was. It wasn’t just picking up the first down; it was running into a group of Falcons and refusing to go down. Judging by the reaction of those around me, Jameis is indeed famous right now down in Tampa. He also ran for a touchdown in the first quarter.

Mike Evans is still having a serious problem with dropped passes. One of them went off his hands and into the waiting arms of an Atlanta defender. The Falcons turned that into a field goal just before the half. But wouldn’t you know: Evans also caught the game-winning TD pass. It’s funny when it happens down at the other end of the field; you sort of have to rely on the crowd reaction to know whether it was a catch or not.

Speaking of drops, Austin Seferian-Jenkins missed an easy touchdown in the third quarter. The Bucs had to settle for a field goal instead.

Doug Martin continues his resurgence with another strong game, including a TD run (which I did have a good look at.) He also lost a fumble early in the fourth quarter, which Atlanta turned into six. That took all of the air out of Ray-Jay. I mean, the place was dead for a good ten minutes until the drama of the Bucs’ final drive.

I’m still trying to figure out referee’s Ed Hochuli’s train of thought in the third quarter. With Tampa Bay up by a point, he called Matt Ryan for intentional grounding, and because it happened in the end zone, it was a safety. But while we were all celebrating, Hochuli came back a few seconds later and said it wasn’t a safety. After seeing the replay, we were screaming for Lovie Smith to challenge it. No sale.

After the Bucs missed a two-point conversion, I listened in to a nice conversation behind me about when/when not to go for two. Ah, the power of alcohol.

And then there was the older guy sitting next to me, who told me about all the jello shots he had while tailgating. Don’t let me hold you back, brother.

One more note about the crowd: what was up with all the empty seats, especially on the Atlanta side of the field? The Bucs were playing their first meaningful December game in years, and the place isn’t sold out? Oh well, can’t blame the weather, either. It was sunny and 80 down there.

The Bucs are now 6-6, and have exceeded a lot of people’s expectations, not to mention mine. Here we are, eight days into December, and the Bucs are in the playoff conversation. At this moment, they are at the top of the “in the hunt” category, one game behind the Seahawks for the No. 6 seed. Tampa Bay’s win over Atlanta was huge because it gives the Buccaneers the tiebreaker over their division rivals. All they can do is keep winning, and get some help. For starters, they’ve got to beat the Saints on Sunday.

It’s going to be a wild ride to the finish. I’m ready.

Follow me on Twitter @briwillwerth

Bucs Beat the Falcons! My Photos and Videos

On Sunday, I was at Raymond James Stadium as the Buccaneers pulled out a 23-19 victory over the Falcons. I will share my opinions on this great game on Tuesday. In the meantime, enjoy these photos and videos I took from the game.

Follow me on Twitter: @briwillwerth