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?

 

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.

Monday Column: Can the Bucs Really Make the Playoffs?

The short answer to that question is….yes.

But you didn’t come here for a one-word response.  The long answer is the focus of this week’s column.

With five games remaining, the Buccaneers have a record of 5-6, having lost to Indianapolis on Sunday. Even though they’re a game under .500, the Bucs are only one game out of a wild card spot, currently held by Seattle, which beat Pittsburgh.

Tampa Bay plays three of its final five games at Ray-Jay, including the next two against division rivals Atlanta and New Orleans. Then the Bucs head to St. Louis for a Thursday night matchup, return home to host Chicago, and then finish the year at Carolina. I think the Buccaneers will probably have to win four of those games. Heck, they may even have to run the table, which is hard to even think about, given that they still have to go to Charlotte.

In order to do that, they can’t be making the mistakes that cost them against the Colts on Sunday. The stupid penalties need to be reduced dramatically. The secondary has to play much better. The pass protection has to improve. Receivers need to make the big catches (I’m looking at you, Mike Evans.) Jameis Winston needs to keep the number of turnovers at a minimum.

The Bucs’ playoff chances took a hit at Lucas Oil Stadium. But in the NFC, which features a couple of great teams and a lot of mediocre ones, Tampa Bay still has a chance. It’s been awhile since Bucs’ fans have even thought about the playoffs heading into December.

I’ll be heading down to Tampa next weekend to see the Buccaneers play the Falcons. A win would be huge, because it would mean sweeping Atlanta and owning the tiebreaker against them.

Photo courtesy: buccaneers.com

Make Those Travel Plans: The Bucs Schedule is Out

If you’re an out-of-town fan like me, you live for the day when the NFL schedule is released.  Now we can all start planning trips to Tampa et al.

Without further commentary, here is the 2015 Tampa Bay Buccaneers schedule:

 

9/13     Tennessee

9/20     @ New Orleans

9/27     @ Houston

10/4     Carolina

10/11   Jacksonville

BYE

10/25   @ Washington

11/1       @ Atlanta

11/8       NY Giants

11/15     Dallas

11/22      @ Philadelphia

11/29      @ Indianapolis

12/6        Atlanta

12/13       New Orleans

12/17       @ St. Louis (Thurs.)

12/27       Chicago

1/3            @ Carolina

A note to my readers: now the draft is over (and you all know who the Bucs picked, from Jameis Winston on down) I will be going into hibernation for a little while until training camp/the preseason gets going.  I am grateful to everyone who reads this blog, and I look forward to reconnecting with you for the 2015 season!

 

Dear Bucs: What’s With the Play-Calling?

Now that I’ve had time to sleep on Sunday’s bitter defeat, it’s time to take a look back and dissect the biggest issues surrounding the Buccaneers right now. There are many, but one seems to stand out among fans more than the rest.

What about that play-calling in the red zone?

On two different occasions in the second half, the Bucs were in scoring position. Yet all they did was hand the ball off to Bobby Rainey. Rainey had a terrific day running the ball, no doubt about that. But the play-calling was far too conservative. Don’t you have to take a shot to the end zone? Or, at least put the ball in the air on third-and-seven to pick up the first down? If you don’t trust Josh McCown to throw it in that situation, then why is he your starting quarterback?

In those two red zone opportunities, the Bucs ended up with three points. The other attempt ended in a blocked field goal that led to three points for the Rams.

Sure, this team has other problems. The defense let a third-string quarterback pick them apart. Special teams had two kicks blocked. But let’s start at the top: coaching. Jeff Tedford, it was learned after the game, was not calling the plays for the second straight week. Tampa Bay’s offense was awful last year, and they have yet to put 20 points on the board in 2014. They’re 0-2, and playing three straight on the road, starting in Atlanta on Thursday night. This could get ugly in a hurry.

I hope I’m wrong.

Photo Courtesy: AP

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: Bucs Lose To Rams

Here are some thoughts on the Buccaneers’ 19-17 loss to the Rams on Sunday at Raymond James Stadium. When the Bucs lose, there is usually more in the “bad” and “ugly” category. But I’ll always put the “good” first because, well, that’s how the saying goes.

 

THE GOOD
This award goes to running back Bobby Rainey. Filling in for the injured Doug Martin, he rushed for 144 yards on 22 carries. The play of Logan Mankins was definitely a factor in a much-improved running game.

 

THE BAD
The Bucs lost to third-string quarterback Austin Davis. They let him lead a game-winning drive in the final minutes. And they lost to a backup QB last week, too. Both losses have come at home. Let that sink in for a moment.

Special teams were atrocious. The Bucs had two kicks (a punt and a field goal) blocked. Both led to St. Louis field goals.

What’s with the conservative play-calling down in the red zone. The Bucs were inside the 20 on two separate occasions, facing third down, and didn’t take a shot into the end zone. The first occasion ended with the aforementioned blocked field goal. The other ended with three points. I’m confused: don’t you have to take a shot? I’m looking at you, Lovie Smith and Jeff Tedford.

 

THE UGLY
It has to be that awful interception thrown by McCown down near the goal line in the second quarter. The Bucs had first and goal from the 9, and McCown forced the throw, and was picked off by Rodney McLeod. McCown did have two rushing touchdowns in this game, but his mistake was a costly one.

 

FINAL THOUGHTS ON THE CRAZY ENDING
What a crummy way to have the game end. Mike Evans made a great catch on a long pass in the closing seconds, but was clobbered on the play. He was clearly hurt, and the trainers had to help him. The Bucs didn’t have any timeouts. There were eight seconds on the clock, but the injury to Evans required a ten-second runoff. The game was over.

When Evans was hit, there were about 14-15 seconds, and the Bucs would’ve had time to rush down the field, spike the ball, and set up a game-winning field goal attempt. What a lousy rule. I know why it’s there, but I don’t think anyone felt Evans was faking an injury, given the hit he took.

Photo courtesy: Tampa Bay Times