I tried to make a case for the 2013 Tampa Bay Buccaneers. I really did. I thought they would go 10-6, win the South, and be this year’s sleeper team in the NFC.
I was wrong.
I don’t blame myself for falling in love with Tampa Bay. All the pieces are there. Josh Freeman is in a contract year and it would behoove him to put together a solid fifth year campaign. Last season, the Buccaneers had the number one ranked run defense in the league, but struggled mightily against the pass. Tampa Bay addressed their inability to stop opposing team’s passing attacks in the offseason by adding safety Dashon Goldson from the 49ers, and inking Darelle Revis to a team-friendly contract with no guaranteed money, a smart move considering they face Drew Brees, Matt Ryan and Cam Newton twice a season. They also got back their two best offensive linemen — Davin Joseph and Carl Nicks — who both missed time last season due to injury. Add in offensive weapons like Doug Martin, Vincent Jackson, and Mike Williams, and the Bucs have all the ingredients to compete for the NFC South crown or a Wild Card birth. But all the talent in the world can’t overcome an undisciplined football team.
I don’t want to overreact considering were only two weeks into the season, but Tampa Bay’s flaws seem to be an occurring problem that not even the best teams in the NFL can overcome. In their first two games, the Buccaneers have rushed for 225 yards, but have also amassed 220 yards worth of penalties. That’s an alarming statistic, and a sign that Tampa Bay has difficulty completing basic fundamentals in a game where an ill-advised penalty can be the difference between winning and losing.
These mental mistakes have literally cost Tampa Bay games already this season. In week one against the Jets, Lavonte David was flagged for unnecessary roughness with an out-of-bounds late-hit on Jets quarterback Geno Smith. The penalty cost the Bucs 15 yards and put Jets kicker Nick Folk in range for a game-winning field goal.
I tend to give teams a pass in the mental error department during the first week, because, well, it’s week one, and these things happen. But the problems the Bucs saw in their first game against the Jets translated over to Sunday afternoon/night versus the Saints, which is an indication that their lack of discipline may be an overarching theme and seemingly can’t be remedied with better coaching.
Tampa Bay should have beaten New Orleans Sunday. They played a better brand of football and, for the most part, kept Drew Brees and his bandits of playmakers in check. Brees threw for 322 yards, and Jimmy Graham exploited the secondary with 10 receptions for 179 yards, but the Bucs’ bend-but-don’t-break defense held the high-powered Saints offense to a mere 16 points, which is an impressive feat of it’s own. The Buccaneers, however, couldn’t get out of their own way, committing 10 penalties for a total of 118 yards. 118 yards! Brutal. Disgusting. Insurmountable. Excuse me while I search my dictionary for more adjectives to describe this putrid performance…
Defensively, the Buccaneers did more than enough to win the game. But in all actuality, they should have done less. On a first-and-10 from the Saints’ 25-yard line, Drew Brees was sandwiched between defensive tackle Akeem Spence and defensive end Adrian Clayborn. The play resulted in a fumble, but Clayborn was flagged for unnecessary roughness, turning a fumble recovery with premium field position for the offense, into 15 free yards and an automatic first down for the Saints. The tape showed that Clayborn’s hit was clean but the force of the blow snapped Brees’ head into Spence’s helmet. The play did not warrant a flag. If anything, Spence should have received the penalty. But in today’s NFL, refs are told to throw the flag, and ask questions later. You can’t blame Clayborn and Spence for their physical style; they’re trying to make a play. But if both players aimed lower and targeted the midsection of Brees, points most certainly would have been scored on ensuing possession.
The Buccaneers came up with big stops when they mattered most. In the final minute of the first half, the Saints were setup on the one-yard line after Brees connected with Jimmy Graham on a 30-yard completion. The Buccaneers stuffed the Saints on three consecutive plays, resulting in a New Orleans field goal attempt by Garrett Hartley. The kick was true, but in typical fashion, the Bucs were called offside, which placed the ball on the one-yard line (the Saints lost yardage from their original line of scrimmage, so the ball was moved half the distance to the goal). Sean Peyton elected to go for it on fourth-and-goal on the next play (which, I might add, was the right call) but was again denied by the Buccaneers’ physical front seven. Getting called offside on a field goal within the 5-yard line is inexcusable. Tampa Bay was also flagged for illegal formation, false Start, and another personal foul call on a helmet-to-helmet hit. Generally, as the season progresses, teams will work out the kinks a clean up these brain-fart penalties. But in the case of Tampa Bay, it could very well be their narrative.
The Buccaneers have also come up short closing out games. On Sunday, Tampa Bay had a chance to ice the game by converting one more first down. Instead of throwing the ball, Tampa Bay elected for three consecutive run plays. The logic behind the play calling is obvious: You want to force the opponent to burn their timeouts so if you do turn the ball over, have to punt, or miss a field goal, the opposing offense has to rely on spiking the ball to stop the clock and routes geared towards the sidelines. We see this type of conservative gameplay throughout the entire league on a consistent bases. And with the way Doug Martin was running on the Saints’ defense, it seemed like a no-brainer. Tampa Bay eventually settled for a 47-yard field goal attempt with the offense failing to convert the first down. The Saints took over on downs and converted pass plays of 15, 8, and 31 yards to set up a game-winning 27-yard field goal from Garrett Hartley. Normally, I wouldn’t have a problem with offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan’s decision to run the ball three times and attempt a field goal. However, against the Jets in week one, Tampa Bay was in a similar situation and ran three consecutive run plays. This is the definition of insanity. It’s also an indictment of Josh Freeman. Greg Schiano and Sullivan clearly have little trust in Freeman’s ability to make big conversation late in games. This was also the second straight game in a row the Buccaneers had a win expectancy over 95 percent with less than two minutes remaining in the game, as pointed out by Grantland’s Bill Barnwell.
This is a critical year for Josh Freeman. The way he performs this season will determine whether he’ll end up with a new contract with $20-$30 million guaranteed, or wind competing to win starting jobs on bad teams or end up as a solid backup with an established quarterback in front of him. In 2010, Freeman threw 26 touchdowns to 6 interceptions and completed 61 percent of his passes. That was three years ago. But it still proves he has the capability of being a winning quarterback in this league. But remember: Freeman was not drafted by Schiano, and it’s clear their relationship has grown contentious with reports surfacing that Schiano rigged the captain voting. And I thought the Jets were a circus. It gets worse, though, with rumors that Josh Freeman will likely seek a trade before the NFL’s deadline. Schiano has never publicly endorsed Freeman and drafted North Carolina State quarterback Mike Glennon in the third round this past spring. I won’t be entirely shocked if Schiano decides to go with Glennon over Freeman as we get deeper into the season, especially if Freeman continues his inconsistent play. But if the Bucs are banking on Glennon instantly becoming the savior of the franchise, then this team is deeper in the muck than any of us expected.
I don’t like being wrong. But when I am, I’ll eat my crow (probably with a little brown sugar and butter). And who knows, maybe Freeman and Schiano mend their relationship and Freeman explodes for four touchdowns and 400 yards against the New England Patriots and completely turns around his season. Maybe the Bucs suddenly learn how to play fundamental football and curb the mental errors that have plagued them in the first two weeks and I wind up looking like a genius.
Or maybe I end up looking like a giant idiot!