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FAB 1. Arians Remains Confident In Bucs’ Turnaround
You’ll have to excuse Bruce Arians’ Cheshire cat smile.
No, he’s not happy with the Bucs’ 2-6 record or the current four-game losing streak.
“I’m just pissed because we’ve had games to win and we didn’t win them,” Arians said.
But he’s smiling after his Wednesday press conference as I’m interviewing him one-on-one in the halls of the AdventHealth Training Center, I ask him about being in some very unfamiliar territory – he’s never lost more than two games in a row as a head coach.
And he smiles because he’s confident – supremely confident – that the Bucs will turn it around and learn how to win over the second half of the season.
And I believe him.
How could I not? The 67-year old Arians has a tremendous amount of swagger about him. I’m not the only one who believes him. His players are standing firmly behind Arians as the Bucs head towards the second half of the season.
“As a leader when you have guys following the leader you can’t have them lose confidence in you and we certainly haven’t,” Bucs right tackle Demar Dotson said. “I wouldn’t expect him to say anything different. That’s the kind of leader he is – he’s upbeat, positive and confident. He tries to help the young guys keep their confidence up. That’s who he is for this football team.”
Arians is the fifth head coach Dotson has played for in Tampa Bay. He’s seen coaches lose their confidence and in turn, lose the team.
I’ve seen it too over the last decade – too many times.
What I don’t see is the bewilderment and the lost look in Arians’ eyes that I’ve seen from the likes of Raheem Morris, Greg Schiano, Lovie Smith and most recently Dirk Koetter. Arians is a smart coach with a wealth of experience on his side, not to mention a lot of seasoned assistants on his staff. Despite the fact that he’s never lost four games in a row before, I think he’ll figure this out and the Bucs will get some wins down the stretch.
“He’s talked about never losing three games in a row before in his head coaching career and now we’re at four games and there is a level of disappointment in that,” Bucs tight end Cameron Brate said. “Anytime you lose a game it sucks, but to lose four straight really sucks. I think we’ve made strides but we haven’t been able to put a complete game together. When the defense plays well our offense plays poorly, and when our offense plays well our defense plays poorly.
“So he’s never lost three games before and now we’ve lost four, and I was trying to see how he would react to that, and I’m sure a lot of other guys were, too. He was just really positive after the game on Sunday. Obviously, we didn’t get the outcome we wanted. That’s a tough environment and it’s a really good football team. We were just a play short, obviously.”
I said the Bucs shouldn’t celebrate any “moral victories” in my Sunday 2-Point Conversion column following Tampa Bay’s 40-34 overtime loss to the Seahawks, and I meant it. Yet, I can’t ignore the fact that the Bucs had leads at Tennessee and at Seattle and were close to winning both games.
“Well, a long time ago I had stretches like this a bunch,” Arians said, recalling his days as a college coach and also with Cleveland in the NFL. “No, there’s no lack of confidence at all. Our coaches know what it takes to win and where to put the guys to be successful. It’s a learning process. I look back at Arizona and we won all these close games, but we had a veteran secondary and a veteran defense. This is a much younger ball club. We’ll take some lumps as we learn.”
Could the Bucs (finally) be close to turning the corner in Arians’ first year? Let’s take a look at the scores of Tampa Bay’s games midway through the season.
Week 1: 49ers 31, Buccaneers 17
The Bucs trailed by seven points with two minutes left before Jameis Winston threw his second pick-six of the game.
Week 2: Buccaneers 20, Panthers 14
Tampa Bay gets its first win under Arians with a goal line stand in the fourth quarter.
Giants 32, Buccaneers 31
A missed field goal by Matt Gay as time expired proved to be the difference.
Buccaneers 55, Rams 40
Tampa Bay’s most complete game of the season as the offense clicked and the defense forced multiple takeaways.
Saints 31, Buccaneers 24
The Saints are the class of the NFC and the Bucs only lost by seven points on the road.
Panthers 37, Buccaneers 26
Despite a ridiculous minus-6 turnover margin, the scrappy Bucs only lost by 11 points.
Titans 27, Buccaneers 23
An inadvertent whistle negated a crucial fourth quarter scoop-and-score that could have led to a Bucs victory.
Seahawks 40, Buccaneers 34 OT
The Bucs had the lead throughout most of the game, but the Seahawks won the coin toss in overtime and Russell Wilson won the game.
What I don’t see from the Bucs’ first eight games is a blowout loss. Tampa Bay was really in every game, and that is encouraging. This is a 2-6 football that could easily be 4-4 right now.
“As a coach, you just keep flipping at why – what can we do better, how can we finish the last five minutes of games – because the last five minutes of games tells the whole season,” Arians said.
To me, that’s telling. Other Bucs head coaches have had blowout losses that Arians’ team has yet to suffer through, and that’s a positive sign.
Schiano had a 41-0 loss at New Orleans in 2012, and a 23-3 loss at New England along with a 31-13 loss at Carolina to help start the 2013 season 0-8. There was also a 27-6 loss at Carolina, a 33-14 loss to San Francisco and a 42-17 defeat at New Orleans down the stretch to end his tenure following the 2013 campaign.
Smith had an embarrassing 56-14 loss at Atlanta in his third game in Tampa Bay on national television, followed by a 48-17 beat down at home by Baltimore a few weeks later. A 34-17 loss at Detroit and a 20-3 loss at home to Green Bay would occur later in the year to help Smith’s first year end in disaster at 2-14.
The next year the Bucs weren’t “Tennessee ready” and got drubbed by Marcus Mariota and the Titans, 42-14 in the season opener at home to start the 2015 campaign. A 32-18 drubbing at home by the New York Giants would happen at midseason, followed by a humbling 38-10 defeat at Carolina in the season finale, which was Smith’s last game as Tampa Bay’s head coach.
Even in Koetter’s 9-7 season in 2016 he had a 40-7 blowout loss to Arians at Arizona, and a 27-7 home loss to Denver. Keep in mind that Koetter was 3-5 before a five-game winning streak helped propel Tampa Bay to a winning record that year. But the next year saw a 34-17 loss at Minnesota and a 30-10 blowout at New Orleans during a 5-11 season. In Koetter’s final 5-11 campaign in 2018, the Bucs had a humiliating 48-10 loss at Chicago and a 42-28 loss at Carolina last year.
The level of confidence I see in Arians rivals that of Tony Dungy’s unwavering resolve during his 1-7 start to his first season in Tampa Bay in 1996. Yet Dungy’s team had three losses by 15 or more, including a 34-3 waxing at the hands of Green Bay in Tampa Bay in his first game as the Bucs head coach.
There were some close losses too, including a four-point defeat to John Elway’s Broncos – a team that would finish 13-3 – in Denver, and a four-point loss at home to Seattle before a 24-13 upset of a playoff-bound Minnesota team. That was followed by a four-point home loss at Arizona, a six-point road loss at Green Bay and a three-point loss at Chicago before 1-8 Tampa Bay won three straight games, which was kicked off by a 20-17 overtime win over Oakland at home.
The next game was one of the most pivotal games in franchise history – a come-from-behind 25-17 win at San Diego after Tampa Bay trailed 14-0 in the first quarter. That was the game that Warren Sapp and Derrick Brooks decided to make a stand after watching ESPN’s Chris Berman call the team the “Yuccaneers” on NFL Countdown before kickoff.
The Bucs would win the following week, 13-7, over the Saints and finish the year winning five of the last seven games of Dungy’s first season. The Bucs learned how to win on the road, learned how to string wins together and learned how to close out the season on a positive note, drubbing the Bears, 34-19, in Tampa Bay’s season finale to end with a 6-10 record.
Call it momentum or just call it experienced gained at the end of the ’96 campaign helped fuel a 13-6 opening day upset of a 49ers team that was 12-4 the year prior in the ’97 season opener at Houlihan’s Stadium that sent shockwaves through the NFL, especially after Pro Bowl middle linebacker Hardy Nickerson knocked Pro Bowl quarterback Steve Young out with a concussion, and third-year defensive tackle Warren Sapp took out Jerry Rice’s ACL on a tackle.
The Bucs won five straight games before losing at Green Bay, 21-16, and would go on another three-game winning streak at midseason to finish 10-6 and host a Wild Card playoff game against Detroit. A long-awaited postseason win against the Lions placed Tampa Bay in a divisional playoff game at Green Bay where Brett Favre and the more experienced Packers would prevail in a close game, 21-7.
If Arians’ Bucs can learn how to win down the stretch and go 4-4 to show some modest improvement with a 6-10 record, or better yet, finish 5-3 as Dungy did, and wind up with a 7-9 record, that would be very encouraging heading into 2020.
“We were 4-4 in Arizona [in 2013] and then we were 6-2 at the end, but we won those close games and that helped us,” Arians said. “There’s no doubt it’s about winning this year – it’s just about winning that first one and then stringing them together. That momentum can build fast.
“There’s nobody we can’t beat [down the stretch] – but there is nobody that can’t beat us, either.”
The Bucs players realize how close they are to turning the corner, but it has to start this week at home against Arizona.
“What really stinks is that it’s not necessarily a play at the end of the game that is hurting us,” Brate said. “We never know when that play is going to come – that play that changes the game. Unfortunately we’ve been on the wrong end of that a couple of times this year. Coach is staying positive and he’s preaching that we’re really close. Close is unfortunately not going to cut it, so hopefully we can get some of these wins in games coming up at home.”
The most important thing is that Arians’ players sense his high level of confidence and are still on board.
“We’re not satisfied with our record, but nobody is jumping ship,” Bucs nose tackle Beau Allen said. “Sometimes when things aren’t going well you’ll get some guys with bad attitudes, but there is none of that. We’re playing hard. We’re trying to win every game. Unfortunately we haven’t been able to close out games. But there is nobody here that doesn’t have faith. I think things are going to turn around.”