It seems like forever ago that the Bucs had outgunned Drew Brees, one of the top gunslingers in the league, in the opening week of the season when they stunned the Saints down on the bayou with a 48-40 victory, and thus, FitzMagic was born. Most of the pundits believed Ryan Fitzpatrick’s aerial heroics to be an outlier and even the NFL odds being offered at some of the best online sportsbooks, found all in one place at Sportsbook Review, made Tampa Bay a three- to four-point home underdog in Week 2 when the defending Super Bowl camps came to town. But Fitzpatrick proved he was not to be trifled with and the quasi-journeyman tossed for over 400 yards and four touchdowns en route to the 27-21 shocker.
Ah, but now the Bucs need a compass more than anything else because they have lost their direction. Jameis Winston returned from suspension and suddenly the mojo changed and things just haven’t been the same. Winston has been the man under center since Week 5 after returning from his three-game suspension to start the season but was removed in the Bucs’ 37-34 loss to Cincinnati after in Week 8 after throwing four interceptions. Fitzpatrick took over and struck for a pair of touchdowns to keep it close (and get the cover as 3.5-point road underdogs according to the NFL odds board but it was not enough. Fast-forward to last week and it was the Panthers who handed the Bucs their fifth loss over the last six games.
Perhaps veteran Pro-Bowler Gerald McCoy summed up the current state of the Bucs best when he said, “I heard Tony Dungy say something on TV. He said, ‘When you’re winning say little and when you’re losing say less.’ So, that’s kind of where I’ve been at with talking. Because we haven’t been winning, the defense hasn’t been playing good, there’s not really a lot of talking that needs to be done.”
Spoken like a man who knows sage advice when he hears it but it doesn’t solve the problems of the here and now. The Bucs are the top passing team in the league, averaging over 356 yards per game and stand as the No. 7 ranked offense in points scored. But that defense – oh my, that defense – is as porous as a tennis racket trying to catch water. Tampa Bay’s defense is currently ranked 32nd in points allowed, surrendering over 34 points per game, owns the 30th-ranked pass defense, is 26th in sacks, and dead last in interceptions. The good news? The Bucs are 15th against the run, but why would an opponent run the ball when their receivers can move freely about anywhere on the field?
It’s a sad state of affairs and even the firing of the previous defensive coordinator, Mike Smith, has done little to improve Tampa Bay’s defense. The defensive line has talent but the secondary is something out of a Stephen King novel, only scarier. And despite the hand-wringing regarding the Bucs’ defensive woes, there is a larger question looming which has nothing to do with that side of the ball.
The pink elephant in the room is what to do about Jameis Winston. The team has an option next year on his rookie contract but most of the time if that trigger is sprung; the team enters into a long-term deal in order to avoid the specter of free agency. But a deal beyond next season with the mercurial No. 1 overall pick in the 2015 draft is a long shot at best. Perhaps Winston will regain his starting job and fulfill his vast potential. But right now he can’t do much but sit on the bench and wait while Bucs’ fans already contemplate next season.