After leading for over 49 minutes of Sunday’s regular-season finale against New Orleans, the Bucs found a way to blow it late and lose 23-20. By squandering a 13-point, 20-7 lead in the fourth quarter, Tampa Bay effectively wrapped up the No. 1 overall pick in this spring’s NFL Draft.
“Going into the game we were going to have an opportunity to pick a pretty good football player,” Bucs head coach Lovie Smith said of ending with a premium draft slot no matter the outcome. Combined with Tennessee’s loss against Indianapolis, a Tampa Bay win would have dropped it to No. 2 overall.
“When you’re down there that’s one consolation, I guess, from the season we’ve had and that’s where we are now,” Smith continued. “We were anxious to play this last game. We want to get 2014 in our past to get to this next year where I know good things will happen.”
For the majority of the game it seemed that Tampa Bay was headed toward win No. 3, not pick No. 1 – much to the chagrin of many fans.
Kicker Patrick Murray put the Bucs up 3-0 midway through the opening quarter with his 12th consecutive made field goal, a 39-yarder that was set up by a Josh McCown-to-Mike Evans third-down completion on a broken play for 18 yards. Combined with a 27-yard conversion late in the first half, Tampa Bay’s rookie kicker finished his impressive campaign 20-for-24 on field goals and 31-for-31 on extra points.
Prior to that initial scoring drive, the Bucs immediately began the game on a positive note by getting two of its receivers to the 1,000-yard mark. McCown opened with an 8-yard hook up to Evans and then hit Vincent Jackson for 11 yards on the very next play.
Evans (five catches for 54 yards) ends his phenomenal rookie season as the team’s leading receiver in yardage, with 1,051 on 68 catches, and the new single-season franchise record holder in receiving touchdowns. His 6-yard grab from McCown on the Bucs next drive following Murray’s first field goal pushed his total to 12, breaking a tie with Mike Williams set in 2010.
“It was a goal for me and V-Jax to both have it,” Evans said afterward. “So that’s pretty special. He worked so hard he deserves it. He paved the way for me to get it as well.”
Jackson exited the game with a reported groin injury shortly after surpassing 1,000 yards for the sixth time in 10 NFL seasons. His lone reception gives him 70 on the year for 1,002 yards. Jackson never caught 70 passes during his first seven seasons in San Diego, but the 6-foot-5 veteran has done so in all three years with the Bucs.
“I definitely want him back and he definitely wants to be back and we can do it again hopefully,” Evans said of keeping Jackson with the team next year. “He’s been very helpful throughout this whole process, my whole rookie year, and I was very fortunate to play alongside him.”
Evans’ touchdown pushed Tampa Bay’s lead to 10-0 early in the second quarter and the Bucs’ 20-7 lead at the break represented the largest of the season. Tampa Bay got to that midway total with another first-half touchdown from running back Charles Sims – the first of his career – and Murray’s second field goal with 6 seconds left.
It was the sixth time in the last nine games Tampa Bay held a halftime lead, but there would be no more scoring for the home team after that moment. Fans slowly watched as loss No. 14 unfolded in the second half.
After racking up 248 yards in the first half, including 148 on the ground, a more familiar version of this year’s Bucs offense emerged from the tunnels for the third quarter. Tampa Bay totaled just 32 second-half yards during its five chances with the ball and couldn’t take advantage of two third-quarter interceptions of Saints quarterback Drew Brees.
A rushing attack that gashed New Orleans for 148 first-half yards and ended with a season-high 183 didn’t do much over the final two quaters when lanes began closing up. Running back Doug Martin hit 100 yards for the first time since Week 2 last year, also against New Orleans. Martin finished his lackluster third season with a 108-yard day on 19 attempts. Sims recorded his best rushing game of the season with 69 yards on 18 carries and the touchdown.
“It’s a bittersweet feeling,” Martin said of his 100-yard day. “We wanted to end on a good note and win this last home game of the season, but on the other side it is nice to have the 100-yard game.”
Leonard Johnson picked off Brees in the second quarter, adding to the pair Bradley McDougald and Keith Tandy nabbed in the third. The interceptions were the first of the season for all three players and the first of McDougald’s career.
Sunday marked the first time in franchise history Tampa Bay finished winless at home since the inaugural 1976 season and the first time ever with eight home losses. It’s also the first time the Bucs went 0-6 in NFC South play and the first time they’ve gone with a winless divisional record since the ’76 season.
The wheels on this last and final loss of a forgettable season began to fall off midway through the fourth quarter when McCown’s pass to Tavarres King bounced off the recently acquired receiver’s hands and into the arms of Kennan Lewis. New Orleans took over at midfield and grabbed the first and only lead it would need seven plays later. Brees dumped a short pass off to Marques Colston and the veteran receiver did the rest, scoring from 36 yards out.
To add insult to injury, New Orleans tacked on a safety 47 seconds later when outside linebacker Junior Galette sacked McCown in the end zone to make it 23-20. The safety-sack was the second of the year for Galette against the Bucs. The fifth-year veteran brought down backup quarterback Mike Glennon during the Saints’ Week 5 win in New Orleans.
The manner in which Tampa Bay lost Sunday did not give the appearance of a team trying to lock up a victory, especially considering the number of reserves getting extensive playing time. Smith continued to say that winning was the ultimate goal, but that it wouldn’t have made up for a season full of lousy finishes.
“Not a good feeling to be in, it’s as simple as that,” Smith said after wrapping up his first season leading the Buccaneers. “One win wouldn’t have helped an awful lot either. We’re going to feel better when we’re winning our division. Until then we don’t feel good about an awful lot except that knowing our roster a lot better and knowing the direction we need to go.
“If we would’ve won today we would have felt better about this game. But the season as a whole; that’s not where we want to be, and we won’t be there long.”
It was a sunny afternoon in Tampa Bay and the temperature at kickoff was 79 degrees. The announced paid attendance at Raymond James Stadium was 59,952.
Buccaneers reported defensive starters: LE Jacquies Smith, DT Akeem Spence, DT Clinton McDonald, RE Michael Johnson, SLB Orie Lemon, MLB Dane Fletcher, WLB Lavonte David, CB Alterraun Verner, CB Johnthan Banks, FS Dashon Goldson and SS Bradley McDougald.
Buccaneers reported offensive starters: WR Vincent Jackson, LT Demar Dotson, LG Logan Mankins, C Evan Dietrich-Smith, RG Patrick Omameh, RT Oniel Cousins, TE Luke Stocker, WR Mike Evans, QB Josh McCown, RB Doug Martin and TE Brandon Myers.
The only active Bucs player not to enter Sunday’s game was QB Mike Glennon.
Tampa Bay’s inactives were WR Robert Herron, WR Solomon Patton, RB Mike James, CB Isaiah Frey, DE George Uko, LB Mason Foster and T Anthony Collins.