Tampa Bay’s 35-26 loss at Green Bay was a close fought game but ended in another loss, the fourth straight for the Buccaneers. In what some may look at as a moral victory for the young Bucs, the players and coaches inside the Tampa Bay locker room refused to pat themselves on the back. For a team that is admittedly in a growth stage with focus on maturing the young coaches and young players, I do not see why these Bucs would not pat themselves on the back for fighting toe-to-toe on the road in below freezing conditions with the undefeated, defending world champion Packers.
For every young team there comes a moment, a play, or a game such as this one that symbolizes the turning point and establishes exactly who they are and forging a true identity. When I was a young Buc, that turning point came in a win against the mighty San Francisco 49ers in 1997 at home at Raymond James Stadium. It was a moment that we realized that yes, we can play with the best – and win.
Albeit that turning point came from a game we won, these young Bucs can still take from the loss against the Packers and realize the same thing; that they can play with the best – and win.
Well, who are these guys? What will they develop into? At what point will be their turning point? This group of young Bucs is exciting to watch develop and mature. If not for some costly coaching decisions and some game-changing penalties that either took the momentum away from the Bucs or kept crucial drives alive for the Packers, these young Bucs may have shocked the world and gave the Packers their first loss of the season.
After shutting out the Packers in the third quarter, keeping scoreless a Packers team that led the NFL in third quarter scoring, the Bucs coaching staff made a costly decision in the fourth quarter to kick a second onside kick, which Green Bay recovered. That took the momentum away from Tampa Bay, which had just scored on an impressive drive to bring the game within two points of a tie against the Super Bowl champs.
With a short field given to them by the onside kick recovery, the Packers went on to score again on a 40-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Jordy Nelson, putting the game out of reach and sealing the win for the Packers. The move to make an onside kick undermined any confidence the Tampa Bay coaching staff had in the Buccaneers defense, which for all intents and purposes, had just stifled the Packers juggernaut of an offense the entire third quarter.
The move reminded me of a similar move by the Atlanta Falcons last week against the New Orleans Saints when Coach Mike Smith decided to go for it and failed on fourth down at their own 29-yard line. The Saints went on to win it with an easy field goal by virtue of the great field position attained by the fourth down stop. A move that symbolized Smith’s lack of confidence in his defense was very similar to the move Bucs head coach Raheem Morris made to kick an onside kick against the Packers showing a lack of confidence in his own defense.
To make matters more telling on Morris’ utter lack of confidence in his defense, coach Morris stubbornly went through with his onside kick plan even though the Packers return team was lined up to defend against an onside kick! Whether the Buccaneers onside kick or the Atlanta Falcon fourth down attempt succeeded or not the decision to take this route still sends the same message: “I don’t trust our defense.”
To a man, no one in the Falcons or Buccaneers locker room would express any disdain for their head coach’s decision to not entrust the fate of the game to their defense against high-powered NFL offenses led by quarterbacks Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers. The day that either of these teams attain a player that has the caliber to stand up against the “establishment” and can speak the truth about this type of blatant lack of confidence in its defensive players to be clutch in crucial game deciding situations, is the day that these teams turn the corner and rise to the next level as a true power.
Watching the post-game interviews with the team’s players, quite honestly made me sick to my stomach. Every one of the players asked about their coach’s decision, cower down and towed the company line, not willing to express any second-guessing about their head coach’s risky decision.
When I played for the Buccaneers, as I grew into a valued NFL player, I quite often spoke my mind. Many times speaking my mind meant speaking against the “establishment” or the “establishment’s” franchise players, which would ruffle some feathers to say the least. In fact, I was on a team full of players that demanded the ball and demanded to be trusted in clutch situations. Players like Warren Sapp, Hardy Nickerson and Keyshawn Johnson would have never been able to suck up their pride as a competitor and tow the company line.
Instead, they would have called out their coach, they would have stood up and expressed the insult that the coach’s decision made them feel, they would have dealt with the consequences and dealt with the assured call into the head coach’s office the day after the game. And assuredly, those type of players end up being the fire and the light that other players rally around and look to for much needed leadership and inspiration. These types of players are the ones who inevitably take a team up another notch and make the difference between a team comprised of a bunch of Indians running around with no chief, to a group of warriors who are true men led by true men.
Certain accountability is gained when a team consists of players that in clutch situations demand the ball or that demand the chance to do what it is they are highly trained to do. A certain camaraderie and cohesiveness is lost amongst football teams when coaches decide to not trust their players and rather decided to make highly irrational and risky moves instead. A certain level of toughness and resolve grows in the teams that have those players that refuse to tow the company line afraid to speak against their superiors.
These teams are the ones with character, with moxie, and the ones that become winners and champions. The teams that consist of such players rarely would see their head coach even make these risky decisions instead of entrusting his fate in his defense because that head coach respects the men on his defense too much to insult them that way.
One day maybe the Bucs will grow into a team that has those type of players, or acquire one of these such players in free agency, and it will take this team up to the next level. With a team full of young players whose future with the Bucs is not entrenched in contracts or solidified with many years of the franchise’s investment in time and energy, it is hard for these young players to have confidence to answer the call.
But for now at this point in the team’s maturation we are left with a moral victory, a pat on the back, and a group of “yes men” who would not dare question their coach’s decision, which ultimately devalued them on national television. I’m wondering, who are these guys? What do they really feel and think? Will anyone eventually develop and stand up? Will anyone rise to the top and dare to become a leader? Go Bucs.
Chidi Ahanotu was an NFL defensive end for 12 seasons, including eight with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1993-2000). Ahanotu is the fifth all-time leading sacker in Buccaneers history with 34.5 QB captures. His career-high 10 sacks in 1997 helped the Bucs make the playoffs for the first time in 13 years and led to him being Tampa Bay's franchise player in 1998.