That was the beginning of the end for Kansas City head coach Herman Edwards, who was fired after a disastrous 2-14 season in 2008. Although he abandoned ship at the right time through free agency, landing with the Buccaneers, who wound up 9-7 last year, Wilkerson – and his teammates – are mired in a 0-5 start that has some similarities to the 2007 team he played for in Kansas City. Whether it’s at the start of the season or the end of the season, losing five games in a row is a tenuous position for a young team like the Buccaneers to be in.
Should Tampa Bay not be victorious in Sunday’s matchup against visiting Carolina, which is a winnable game given the Panthers’ 1-3 record, Wilkerson believes the locker room could begin to fracture.
“Right now everybody is mentally frustrated with the way things are going as far as the losses and the mental breakdowns during the games,” Wilkerson said. “A win would really help us out a lot. It would put a lot of people’s minds at ease – the coaches, the players. I think once we get a win it will really set everything in order and perspective. We’ve got to win, so let’s just keep it going – instead of it being our sixth loss, where people might turn on each other. I’m not saying that everybody is turning on each other because this is a long season. We know that. Everybody has to stick together, but we see things on offense and the offense sees things on defense and we all see things on special teams. We know that if things aren’t going our way it’s going to be very frustrating for us. You just get tired of losing. I’ve been in this situation before with Kansas City. It’s a bad feeling, but I know what the feeling is like. You don’t ever want to have a record like this with this much talent on the team. That’s the most frustrating thing about it.”
Over the first five weeks of the 2009 season, the Bucs have already had a quarterback switch from veteran Byron Leftwich to inexperienced signal caller Josh Johnson; given up eight scoring plays of 40 yards or more; suffered some key injuries to starters wide receiver Antonio Bryant and center Jeff Faine; have struggled with first and third quarter scoring; and not generated enough pass rush.
Wilkerson can’t be blamed for the latter, though. The 6-foot-2, 270-pound defensive end is coming off a career-high three sacks against Philadelphia and has five sacks on the year to lead the defense, which only has a total of nine through five games.
“As a [first-time] starter I have to play better knowing there is somebody behind me that can take my job,” said Wilkerson, who is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent in 2010. “That’s the way I look at it every day that I’m out there on the field. I don’t want to be back in that backup position anymore. That’s the same feeling I’ve been carrying with me ever since I’ve stepped into a starting role.”
Wilkerson said that every Bucs player has to play with accountability and do his own job for the team to be successful. Any finger pointing should be confined to the man in the mirror, not teammates.
“Everybody has to hold themselves accountable because if you don’t, this team is going to get divided,” Wilkerson said. “When a team gets divided, everybody is going to start pointing the finger at each other. Everybody is going to say the system is not working and the coach is not doing a good enough job – even though I don't personally agree with that. The coaches are going to start blaming the players and saying they are not tough enough mentally or physically. That is something that you don’t want. I’ve seen it happen in Kansas City. You want to stay together and stay strong mentally and physically and continue to try to correct the things that have gone wrong in the games.”
Bucs defensive tackle Ryan Sims was Wilkerson’s teammate in Kansas City from 2003-06, but came to Tampa Bay in 2007 a year ahead of him to avoid the Chiefs’ collapse in '08. Yet during Sims' tenure in Kansas City, the Chiefs’ high-powered offense carried the defense, which was usually ranked near the bottom of the league. Even during winning seasons there was plenty of finger pointing going on because of the uneven performances the team was having on a weekly basis with the defense not carrying their fair share of the load.
“We do have some veterans at key positions and that will help the locker room,” Sims said. “In Kansas City we were a young defense and a lot of us had never been through the bad, and that’s what made it bad. We’ve got a lot of young guys here that haven’t been through the bad, either, but what we do have is some older guys that have and can control the situation. The negative stuff needs to be nipped in the bud with some talks on the side. That’s where it starts. You might get a guy moping and complaining. Then it goes from one guy and becomes a group of guys. Then it becomes the entire locker room. As soon as you hear it, that’s when you have to stop it. You tell the younger guys, ‘Hey guys, we need to get focused. Knock off the negativity. That’s not what we’re about.’ Coach [Raheem] Morris does a great job of pointing out the things he’s hearing and shutting that down.”
Sims said he has already spoken to some of his Buccaneers teammates who are letting negatively creep in during the team’s 0-5 start.
“I’ve had some talks with some guys already,” Sims said. “It’s more just guys getting down on their play. Some guys may blow a coverage or a missed opportunity and they may get down. As a vet, I just try to tell guys not to worry too much about it and that another play is coming up. Keep plugging. One play can’t beat us.”
That was the scene last Sunday in Philadelphia where the Eagles jumped out to an early 7-0 lead after a 51-yard touchdown to wide receiver Jeremy Maclin on their second offensive play. Every time the Bucs tried to pull closer, an interception or a big play by the Eagles offense would stymie any progress, which frustrated the Tampa Bay sidelines.
“There were a lot of mixed emotions in that game,” Wilkerson said. “People were getting upset with other people and things like that. There was so much frustration that it was hard to get over certain things as far as making the correct adjustments during the game.”
Wilkerson said the frustration carried over from the sidelines to the Bucs’ locker room after the game, which leads him to believe that things could get worse if Tampa Bay doesn’t get a much-needed win against Carolina on Sunday.
“It was tense after the game,” Wilkerson said. “Being 0-5, it’s going to be tense. I would like to think that the Tennessee Titans’ locker room is pretty tense. I’m sure Kansas City’s locker room is very tense. In Carolina, I’m sure things are tense. They got a win, but they are sitting at 1-3. I’m sure they want to do better than that. We want to do better than 0-5.”
With the Detroit Lions becoming the first 0-16 team in NFL history last year, the unthinkable is now possible. Sims is a realist and knows that this young, rebuilding Buccaneers team desperately wants to avoid becoming the second team with that dubious distinction. The inaugural Bucs were the only other team to go winless, posting a 0-14 record in 1976.
“Detroit went 0-16 last year, but it started off 0-5 to get there,” Sims said. “That’s what we’ve got to keep in mind. We’re just trying to get better every day. You win Monday through Saturday. That’s what we’re trying to learn – how to practice well and how to play well. Right now it’s not about playoffs for us. We’re just trying to become a more competitive team and build. That’s the key word for this organization right now. We’re young and we’re building. We need to just build one step at a time.
“Nowadays there is so much pressure on winning right now. If you go back and look at some of the great franchises, they took time to build their teams right. It took the Colts a while to get good and now they’re good year in and year out. It’s the same way with New England. There are steps you have to take to become great. Hopefully we are taking those steps right now.”
It doesn't get any easier the week following the Carolina game as the Bucs will travel to London to play the 3-2 New England Patriots before the bye week.
A win on Sunday would be a step in the right direction for Tampa Bay. However, there is added pressure because the coaches, players and fans know that the Carolina game is a winnable one, just as Washington was two weeks ago. A loss against the division-rival Panthers would send this Buccaneers team to 0-6 and could become a huge step towards locker room turmoil according to some players.