The Buccaneers offense took the field under a black cloud after the Saints took an early, 3-0 lead on their opening drive in Tampa Bay’s heartbreaking, 16-14 loss to New Orleans on Sunday.
The ominous skies soon were filled with lightning and rain, and prompted a weather delay of one hour and nine minutes before play resumed at Raymond James Stadium in Week 2 of the 2013 NFL season.
But the dark clouds have been circling over Tampa Bay long before Sunday, and one has to believe that this season, in which the Bucs have fallen to 0-2, was actually doomed before it even began.
Coming off a three-win improvement from a disastrous 2011 season that saw Tampa Bay lose the final 10 games to finish a disappointing 4-12, expectations were high heading into the 2013 campaign fresh from a season-ending upset at Atlanta.
That win gave the Bucs a 7-9 record and some momentum heading into an offseason that would see general manager Mark Dominik sign one of the NFL’s best safeties in Dashon Goldson, trade for the league’s top cornerback in Darrelle Revis and create a vastly improved secondary dubbed the "No Fly Zone" to help a defense led by Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and star linebacker Lavonte David.
The Bucs offense, which finished the season ninth in the NFL in total offense in 2012, featured two Pro Bowlers in running back Doug Martin and wide receiver Vincent Jackson, as well as the return to health of Pro Bowl guards Carl Nicks and Davin Joseph. Wide receiver Mike Williams had been re-signed to a long-term deal, and quarterback Josh Freeman, who became the team’s first 4,000-yard passer and set a team record for touchdowns with 27 in 2012, was entering a contract year and had every reason to produce a big season and lead the Bucs to the playoffs.
But the first signs of what is shaping up to be disastrous year in Tampa Bay struck on Friday, July 12 when kicker Connor Barth, who is a Pro Bowl-caliber player, suffered a season-ending Achilles injury while playing in a charity basketball game in North Carolina. That set off a change reaction within the Bucs organization that would lead to a tumultuous training camp and have a negative ripple effect into the first two weeks of the regular season.
The loss of Barth prompted the Bucs to sign veteran place kicker Lawrence Tynes, who contracted the MRSA virus in August, which spread to Nicks, who missed the entire preseason and has yet to play in the regular season. Tynes has yet to shake the infection and fully heal, and it’s likely that a lawsuit against the Bucs will emerge from Tynes’ camp.
That could spell disaster for Dominik, the team’s general manager since 2009. All of the goodwill he has fostered within the organization by acquiring a talent-laden roster through free agency, trades and some quality drafts could unravel with a lawsuit from Tynes against the team, as well as the prospects that the Bucs might need a new head coach and a new starting quarterback in 2014 if Tampa Bay can’t win this year. Dominik might not survive if head coach Greg Schiano gets fired.
The Bucs are 1-7 in their last eight games dating back to last year, and that could mean the team not re-signing Freeman and Schiano’s dismissal unless Tampa Bay rallies and makes a playoff run – or at least posts a winning record.
But given the fact that since the 1990s only 12 percent of the teams that start off 0-2 rebound and make the postseason, it’s a daunting task for the Buccaneers and it could cost the franchise it’s quarterback, head coach and general manager dearly.
Tynes’ inability to kick during training camp due to an infected toe and the MRSA virus prompted the Bucs to sign Rian Lindell as veteran competition for first-year kicker Derek Dimke. Lindell beat out Dimke in the preseason finale and appeared to have kicked the game-winner in Week 1, only to have Jets kicker Nick Folk do the honors after New York drove down into field goal range in less than 34 seconds.
With a field goal this past Sunday in Week 2, Tampa Bay had the chance to increase its fourth quarter lead from 14-13 to 17-13 and force New Orleans to score a touchdown instead of a field goal to prevail. But Lindell missed his only attempt of the game, a 47-yarder, and that was costly as it gave quarterback Drew Brees good field position at the Saints’ 37 to maneuver his team down the field. Garrett Hartley kicked a 27-yard game-winner for the Saints and kicked the 0-2 Bucs right in the gut.
Who knows if Nicks would have made a difference in either Bucs loss, but having another Pro Bowler on the field couldn’t hurt an offense that has sputtered and lacked any consistency since training camp started in late July. What has hurt the offense is Freeman’s inaccuracy.
Once a 62 percent passer under former head coach Raheem Morris and former offensive coordinator Greg Olson, Freeman now lacks a working alarm clock, lacks confidence, and lacks a head coach that is on his side. Morris, who coached the defense at Kansas State under former head coach Ron Prince when Freeman was the starting QB as a freshman for the Wildcats, always had Freeman’s back and built the young passer up.
Schiano, a micromanaging, “type A” dictator, prefers a “type A” quarterback. Freeman’s laid-back personality boggles Schiano’s mind and irritates him. That has created a tense work environment for Freeman, who hasn’t helped his cause by missing the team photo prior to the start of the regular season by oversleeping, and wasn’t named a team captain for the first time since his rookie year. Schiano didn’t rig the captain’s vote, but must shake his head at the notion that the players didn’t vote the QB he’s not entirely fond of to be a team captain.
This past offseason, Schiano replaced former QBs coach Ron Turner with former Arizona wide receivers coach John McNulty, whom he employed at Rutgers. Since then, no quarterback in Tampa Bay has completed more than 50 percent of his passes. In the preseason, Dan Orlovsky, the team’s third-string QB, completed just half of his pass attempts.
Under McNulty’s watch, Freeman completed just 46.2 percent (12-of-26) of his passes for 101 yards in the month of August. Freeman has yet to complete at least 50 percent of his passes in either game during the 2013 regular season.
Now there are rumors from CBS Sports’ Jason LaCanfora that Freeman might seek a trade prior to the trading deadline next month. Of course Freeman denied that report after Sunday’s loss to the Saints, but it seems like there is too much smoke around the rocky relationship between Freeman and Schiano for there not to be a fire somewhere at One Buccaneer Place – where the players decided to have a players-only meeting prior to the start of the season for some reason.
Rookie Mike Glennon, who will likely get a shot at replacing Freeman if the Bucs offense can’t get out of its funk and put points on the board before the bye week, completed just 47.1 percent of his passes (33-of-70) for 397 yards with three touchdowns and three interceptions, including a pick-six, in the preseason. Glennon has some potential over the long-term, but if Schiano turns to him this season because the former North Carolina State star is his guy, it will only spell disaster for the entire team.
Glennon is raw, but has a strong arm and some real upside. But what damage could be done to his promising career if he’s thrown into the starting role too early?
And how would that affect Schiano’s already shaky relationship with the players if a rookie quarterback is suddenly thrust into the starting lineup? Players like Jackson, Goldson and Nicks voluntarily came to Tampa Bay in free agency over the past two years to win now and get to the playoffs – and ultimately the Super Bowl.
The last thing any veteran close to the age of 30 or on the other side of 30 wants is a rookie at the helm, and a quarterback controversy that could potentially divide the Bucs’ locker room. Replacing Freeman with Glennon could spell the end of what is a questionable tenure with Schiano, who is currently 7-11 as Tampa Bay’s head coach.
There’s no doubt that the Bucs defense has improved over the last two years. Through Dominik’s talent acquisition and Schiano’s coaching, the Bucs remain stellar in run defense, have improved in pass defense, and have developed into a nasty, tough, hard-hitting unit.
But you can’t win games in the NFL if you don’t score enough points and have a good quarterback. The offense’s surprising regression in Year 2 of the Schiano regime is troubling, and the fact that Schiano never really developed an NFL-caliber passer in his 12 years at Rutgers poses the question – was this the right guy to be put in charge of the continued development of a young, 24-year old with franchise-quarterback physical traits?
Schiano receives a healthy dose of praise for turning around Rutgers, a perennial doormat in the once woeful Big East Conference. But in hindsight, it has perhaps been too much praise.
Schiano never won the Big East Conference title and finished his time at Rutgers with just a 68-67 (.504) record. His lone signature season came seven years ago in 2006 when his Scarlet Knights team led by running backs Ray Rice and Brian Leonard and wide receiver Tiquan Underwood, went 10-2 and finished the year ranked 12th after beating Freeman, Morris and Kansas State in the Texas Bowl, 37-10, while legendary Wildcats coach Bill Snyder was briefly retired.
Last year, it seemed like the no-nonsense Schiano was the right fit for a team that needed a big dose of discipline following the Morris regime. Schiano is known as a strict disciplinarian, and that approach worked for a while as the Bucs got out to a 6-4 start in 2012 before five straight losses doomed Tampa Bay’s playoff hopes.
When a team betrays the identity of its head coach and plays as undisciplined as it has with 23 penalties for 212 yards in the first two weeks of the NFL season that’s a very ominous sign for Schiano. The first rule of football is don’t beat yourself. The Bucs have done just that to start off 0-2.
Tampa Bay’s defense is averaging three 15-yard personal fouls per game – mostly for helmet-to-helmet hits. Schiano said he’s emphasizing the proper target zones in meetings, but are the players listening? Their play on the field for two weeks suggests they are not.
It’s no better on Tampa Bay’s offense as delay of game penalties, false starts and illegal formation infractions have lost yardage and first down opportunities, and an illegal formation penalty wiped out a fourth-quarter touchdown bomb from Freeman to Jackson against the Saints.
If one is looking for any silver linings through the dark clouds that surround One Buccaneer Place through the team’s 0-2 start here they are.
The Bucs defense is playing great – with the exception of the final minute of the game.
The offense has the talent to once again produce 24 points per game at a moment’s notice – if it can fire on all cylinders.
The team is 0-2 only after losing fourth quarter leads in the final seconds of each game – and there are 14 more games remaining.
The locker room has great veteran leadership, and to his credit, Schiano has done a reasonably good job of not allowing his team to be distracted by controversial reports in the media, and keeping his team focused on the next opponent.
But how long will that last? Do the Bucs have the right leader in place in Schiano to keep the team together, and turn the season around with an upset win at New England on Sunday – or will the Bucs fall to 1-8 in their last nine games?
And does Tampa Bay have a reliable kicker in Lindell that can win games at the end? Hopefully Barth has retired from charity basketball games because the Bucs sure could have used him on Sunday.
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