As one could guess, the majority of the questions were basically this one: What in the world is going on? A team with high expectations is now 2-5 and fighting for their playoff lives before the halfway mark of the season. Instead of answering the same question five different ways, here are my thoughts on the question on most Bucs fans minds.
Question: What the (expletive)?
Answer: There is no one answer – and a lot more unanswered questions. But, for the sake of the article, lets look at some possibilities.
First, how does an offense, going into the third year of the same system, with a third-year quarterback, and added talent still struggle to get out of their own way at times? The Bucs have stayed relatively healthy on offense, so you can’t blame injuries. Could the Bucs have too many options? Is Jameis Winston struggling to make decisions based on the number of talented players? Is he worried about someone getting their feelings hurt if they don’t get the ball? Has it actually complicated things? Last year at this time the Bucs weapons were basically Mike Evans and Cameron Brate with Jacquizz Rodgers as the running back. This year you add in Doug Martin being back, rookie tight end O.J. Howard and receiver DeSean Jackson, plus you still have Adam Humphries at receiver and Koetter seems to want to work Rodgers in for a few series each game, and even Charles Sims. And you see rookie receiver Chris Godwin on the field at times, spelling Evans or Jackson.
Maybe the playbook has gotten too big. The Bucs offense seems to be able to do some things decent, but not too many things great. There is zero identity with this offense. Koetter, or perhaps it was Monken, was asked at one point this year if you can have too many weapons and whoever answered it emphatically said no. And I believe that was the right answer. But figuring out how to utilize them all in the same game seems to be something Koetter and Winston are struggling with.
Regardless, Winston must be better. No doubt about it. We can blame Koetter for his play calling, as he even did himself on Sunday, but as the one who touches the ball on every offensive snap, Winston is ultimately responsible for how the offense performs. When playing well, Winston looks like the second coming of Brett Favre. When he doesn’t he reminds me of Vinny Testaverde. An ultra-talented player who just couldn’t play consistently well enough to lead the Bucs to the playoffs. Will Winston become Favre or Testaverde? The jury is still out.
Secondly, the defense has also disappointed at times, particularly on the road. The Bucs defense plays much better at home, giving up just seven points to the Bears, 23 points to the Giants, 19 points to the Patriots and 17 to the Panthers. On the road it has been a different story, surrendering 34 points to the Vikings, 38 to the Cardinals and 30 to the Bills. Why the big difference? That is the million dollar question. Regardless of the answer, if there even is one, the defense is lacking talent on the defensive line as the team somewhat gambled that Jacquies Smith would recover from an ACL and Noah Spence would be able to stay healthy after coming off offseason shoulder surgery. The Bucs talk about complementary football, but even among the defensive unit itself, they rarely have complement each other. At times, the front four and linebackers have shut the run down and then the secondary plays poorly. Other times it is the exact opposite, or even the linebacker play is poor (see Bills game).
The biggest problem for the defense is the inability to get pressure on the quarterback. You just can’t win many games in the NFL if you don’t get any sacks, or even any hits on the quarterback. While the defense managed to play well enough to probably win on Sunday against the Panthers, counting on that happening for the remaining nine games is a pipe dream. If the Bucs only force one turnover and give Drew Brees all the time in the world next week it could get ugly. It will get ugly.
All in all the defense has probably been even more disappointing than the offense. At one point last season the Bucs defense went on a five game streak where they were the best in the NFL. This year has been a roller coaster to say the least, and I don’t know if there is an end in sight.
At the end of the day many of us, myself included, overestimated this team and staff. As Scott Reynolds mentioned in his Two-Point conversion column we all got a little caught up in the hype. With that said, this isn’t a terrible football team. There is talent. And if Nick Folk does his job against the Patriots, the defense holds up against the Bills and Winston and the offense had played better on Sunday against the Panthers, this could be a 5-2 team instead of a 2-5 one. Coaches will tell you there are usually 5-7 plays a game that affect the outcome. In three of the Buc losses that is most certainly true. Of course had the ball bounced the other way in the Giants game the team could easily be just 1-5.
The difference between first and last in your division is a handful of plays and some luck. Can the Bucs turn it around? Of course. Will they? That is up to the players and the staff. As Demar Dotson said following the loss, this team is on the brink. And as the longest tenured Buccaneer, he has seen prior Bucs teams tank when facing adversity. But go back to when you left Raymond James last year after the Thursday night beatdown from the Falcons. Did you think there was any chance the Bucs would have even a remote chance to get back in the playoff race? I know I didn’t. Of course I also couldn’t have foreseen a 2-5 team after seven games in 2017 either.
Time will tell and the team and staff will sort things out one way or the other. They will either respond and play better or they will continue to struggle and perhaps start over with a new staff for 2018. For now, it is on to New Orleans with a chance to knock off the current NFC South leading Saints.