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SR’s Fab 5 is a collection of inside scoop, analysis and insight from yours truly, PewterReport.com publisher and Bucs beat writer Scott Reynolds. Here are a few things that caught my attention this week at One Buc Place and around the NFL.
FAB 1. The Cold, Hard Truth About The Bucs
As an objective reporter who has faithfully covered your Tampa Bay Buccaneers for 24 years, I am not without my faults. I do my best to provide absolute objectivity with my reporting – even when it’s the cold, hard truth that long-suffering Bucs fans like you don’t necessarily want to read.
To be clear once again, I’m not calling for Koetter to be fired, nor do I want that. I’d like to see this Bucs organization have some continuity and stability, but it’s my duty to you to report what I see and what I know. I’m seeing a season that is quickly spiraling out of control, as there has been plenty of inconsistency on offense, defense and at the kicker position already this year.
It’s different with Koetter coming off a 9-7 season. He’s deserving of a longer leash. We’ll see how the rest of the 2017 season plays out.
While there is some inside information that I simply can’t report due to confidentially, I try my best to report everything I see. Having said that, I and my staff have let you, the PewterReport.com reader, down a bit this season by not reporting all that we’ve observed.
Like you, and plenty within the Bucs organization from the top down to the locker room, I too thought if you take last year’s 9-7 team and add the likes of wide receiver DeSean Jackson, defensive tackle Chris Baker, tight end O.J. Howard, the team’s first-round draft pick, and others, that this year’s Tampa Bay team would automatically be 10-6 or better and playoff bound.
I should have known better. There’s nothing automatic about winning seasons, just ask the 1998 Bucs coming off the franchise’s first playoff appearance in 13 years, or the 2003 team fresh off a Super Bowl championship. Or better yet, look at the 10-6 Buccaneers from 2010 under Raheem Morris and a fatal 4-11 record that followed in 2011.
Even though the coaching staff and the core players might stay the same from a previously successful season, the personality, the identity and the mental make-up of each team is different each year. The fact that the Bucs are eight weeks into the 2017 season and are still trying to find their identity isn’t good at all.
“It’s tough – I mean obviously when you’re 2-5, it’s not the identity you want,” Koetter said. “Every team has its own identity and it changes from year to year. Right now, our team is not where we want to be, so of course everybody is searching for the reasons why. The reasons why that we keep saying every day is that we’re not playing consistent enough football across the board. When we do play consistent football across the board and we don’t beat ourselves, we will have an excellent chance to win games.”
Bucs head coach Dirk Koetter – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
Instead of thinking and writing the Bucs would make the playoffs, I should have said they should make the playoffs.
Let’s face it. This was a hype-filled offseason. We too at PewterReport.com bought into it, helped manufacture it and perpetuated it.
Defensive coordinator Mike Smith had been given a pay raise to stick around. Cornerback Vernon Hargreaves and defensive end Noah Spence would naturally be better in their second NFL seasons. There were plenty of weapons for Jameis Winston, who should progress in his third season in the league.
All signs pointed to success in 2017, and that’s why NFL Films and HBO couldn’t wait to get the Bucs on the national scene with Hard Knocks training camp mini-series. That’s why several national writers and NFL Network’s Good Morning Football were quick to jump on the Bucs’ bandwagon as the breakthrough team this year.
It’s time for me to own it, admit it and learn from it.
PewterReport.com was the first – and perhaps the only – media outlet to decry the lack of physicality during training camp. I’ve said it plenty of times – this year’s training camp was the softest I’ve covered in my 24 years on the Bucs beat.
One prominent veteran on the team even said it was the easiest training camp he’s ever been a part of in his NFL career.
When he sat next to me in the press box of last week’s 17-3 loss to Carolina I told Hall of Fame defensive tackle Warren Sapp that there wasn’t a single live hitting or tackling period and no goal line period in camp he shook his head in disbelief.
There’s a reason why the Bucs are struggling to run the ball, struggling to stop the run and struggling to rush the passer. They weren’t as physical as they needed to be in practice and it’s showing. You can only get to a certain level with “thud tempo.”
Head coach Dirk Koetter – Photo by: Mark Lomoglio/PR
But what I – and PewterReport.com – neglected to point out and emphasize back in August was that the Bucs struggled to run the ball, score points and rush the passer in a very lackluster preseason. All of those issues have reared their ugly heads since September and have continued to plague the Bucs all season.
Now preseason is a tricky thing for a reporter to cover because the starters only get a quarter or two in each of the first two games and most game plans are vanilla as the emphasis is on player evaluation rather than schemes. Sometimes you can read too much into the preseason if you’re not careful.
I’m sure no one in Jacksonville was expecting the Jaguars to lead the league with 33 sacks halfway through the season after getting only eight in the preseason, which was the fourth fewest in the league.
But there were some serious, consistent indicators in August that we missed, and our enthusiasm for the Bucs winning at least 10 games should have definitely been tempered.
The PewterReport.com staff wanted to give the Bucs the benefit of the doubt because of their playoff-ready personnel and missed the fact that the execution wasn’t there as consistently as it needed to be.
Not that we aren’t afraid of criticism from the organization or Bucs fans, but perhaps we at PewterReport.com didn’t want to disappoint the fan base with lower expectations similar to those in Las Vegas where oddsmakers had Tampa Bay winning eight games in 2017. We’re human, and know how much this team, its fans and the Tampa Bay area have longed for a return to the playoffs.
We figured this would be the year. A 10-6 prediction wasn’t far fetched. They had the talent, they showed improvement and they were due, right? We were wrong.
I’ve always prided myself in calling it like I see it and demand the same from PewterReport.com’s other writers, Mark Cook and Trevor Sikkema. That won’t change, but what will change is I’ll make sure that I – and PewterReport.com – have an even more critical eye moving forward.
Here it comes, and I’ll start with this: Tampa Bay is a soft team because of its soft training camp.
Being soft is the furthest thing away from a “bad ass” football team as you can get.
Bucs DE Robert Ayers, Jr. and DT Chris Baker – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
I have seen far more physical Bucs teams in my two decades of covering this franchise, haven’t you? I’ve also seen far more mentally tough Bucs teams, too. I think you’d agree with me on that.
This team has nine weeks to prove me wrong, and for the sake of the franchise and you, the die-hard Buccaneers fans, I certainly hope they do.
This team needs to find that big mother#*@%ing stick that Koetter talked about last year – and in a hurry – because it’s been missing this season.
Now, the Bucs can’t go back and redo training camp and become more physical and more hardened. That time has since passed and that won’t help fix the problems in the present. You can’t have full contact practices during the season on Wednesdays with game days just four days away. But what happened in camp does explain why Tampa Bay is off to a slow start for those of you wondering.
What I’ve also come to learn in my 24 years of covering the Bucs is that teams often take on the identity of their head coach.
Outside of the 5-0 start to spark the 1997 team, the Bucs, under the soft-spoken Tony Dungy, faced slow starts in each of the next three playoff seasons with 3-4 records in 1999, 2000 and in 2001 before waking up in November and having to furiously rally in December to reach the postseason.
Under the mercurial Jon Gruden, the Bucs were hot and cold – 5-11 one year and then 11-5 the next, winning the NFC South. Then the Bucs would go 4-12, followed by 9-7, and another division title.
Raheem Morris and his “youngry Bucs” had a lot of swagger, but it was really false bravado after Tampa Bay went 4-12 after a 10-6 season that was built on smoke and mirrors with fourth quarter comebacks against four awful teams in St. Louis, Arizona, Cleveland and Cincinnati. Morris was out of control, and so was his team.
Greg Schiano was an over the top disciplinarian. Everyone remembers “toes on the line,” right? Schiano was so tightly wound, especially on the sidelines on game days, that his players’ sphincters were tight, too. That explains losing close games at the end like the season opener at the New York Jets and an overtime game at Seattle in 2014 during a 0-8 start.
Lovie Smith was simply the wrong guy for the job. His penalty-ridden, mistake-filled teams lacked discipline – and wins. He was a ho hum coach and so was his team.
While I lauded Koetter’s instance on having a fun work environment as I suggested he replace Smith, I wonder if there is enough of a business-like attitude around One Buccaneer Place. I also wonder how hard the players take these losses. There just doesn’t seem to be a sense of urgency at One Buccaneer Place these days and it has shown up in the first half of too many games this year. It’s troubling.
I don’t see enough accountability in Tampa Bay. I don’t see enough fear, which is a great motivator. Bill Belichick, Bill Parcells, Jimmy Johnson and Gruden among others used the fear of demotion and the fear of getting cut to install accountability. Mess up too many times and you were on the bench or out on the street.
Dungy didn’t use fear, but he had two guys that scared the crap out of the other players in Pro Bowl middle linebacker Hardy Nickerson and Sapp, who ruled the Bucs locker room with an iron fist. If you messed up, you had to face the wrath of Nickerson and Sapp, which was intimidating in person.
The Bucs have a lot of leaders like Winston, defensive tackles Gerald McCoy and Clinton McDonald and linebacker Lavonte David, who can shower this team with positivity and pep talks, but is there any team captain – or any player – that actually points fingers and holds the players accountable? Pointing fingers in the media is a cardinal sin for football players, but sometimes a team needs a few fingers pointed inside the secret confines of a team meeting room or the locker room to light a fire and bring a team together.
Winston might be the best leader on the team and gives some fiery, positive pregame speeches and wrote a nice love letter to the team last year that helped key a turnaround. But there are times when a team needs its ass kicked from within, and I don’t think there are any ass kickers on the current Bucs roster.
Defensive end Robert Ayers has that demeanor, but hasn’t produced nearly enough this year to have the credibility to stand up and demand accountability in the locker room. I think in time middle linebacker Kwon Alexander can become that type of player due to his personality as long as he continues to play well on the field.
Bucs MLB Kwon Alexander – Photo by: Mark Lomoglio/PR
By the way, despite a four-game losing streak that has already sunk the Bucs’ season not one leader has stepped up and demanded a players only team meeting as of Wednesday. What are they waiting for? Winston addressed that on Thursday.
“This isn’t a time where we can have a huge team meeting and bring everyone in and start pointing fingers and say, ‘This is what needs to change,’” Winston said. “This is a time where all of us must be accountable for our own actions [and] check ourselves. I was listening to Eric Thomas, one of his motivational speeches and it’s called ‘Check Yourself.’ One thing he said is you don’t need a coach to be telling you what to do. You don’t need your wife or your brother or your father to be telling you what to do. You have to check yourself.”
I wholeheartedly disagree with Winston. Not everyone is a self-starter or a self-motivator. If they were there would not be the need for leaders because everyone would be leading themselves. That’s not going to happen on a 53-man roster. Players need leadership, and sometimes they need to be called out in front of their teammates to be held accountable.
Earlier this week it was suggested by some voices on Twitter that the Bucs lacked heart, but I also disagree with that. If the Bucs didn’t have heart they wouldn’t have come a reliable kicker away from beating New England, or fought back from a 31-0 deficit in Arizona or rallied to take the lead in Buffalo in the fourth quarter. Heart is not the problem.
I sense from talking to some of the Bucs players off the record that none of whom saw this 2-5 start coming and that they bought in too hard on the preseason hype. The players are the ones out there on the field that are playing inconsistent football. For a week or two the kicking is the problem. Another week it’s the offense, then the defense, then back to the offense, then the defense again.
But the coaches aren’t doing enough to prepare this team to play. The play-calling, especially on third down offensively and defensively, has let the Bucs down too often. There was no reason why Hargreaves should have been playing 10 yards off the ball earlier in the season, and no reason why the Bucs should only have seven sacks in seven games. I would be very concerned about my job if I was defensive line coach Jay Hayes, who too often has called for the Bucs to stunt and run games this year rather than just up-field rush the quarterback.
Bucs head coach Dirk Koetter – Photo by: Getty Images
The talent is there in Tampa Bay, especially on the offensive side of the ball. The offense’s underachievement – highlighted by last week’s three-point effort at home against Carolina – is damning for Koetter.
Winston, injured shoulder and all, is still the most promising quarterback the Buccaneers have ever had. At age 23, he is on pace to become the first QB in Tampa Bay history – and NFL history – to begin his career with three 4,000-yard passing seasons.
The Bucs’ wide receiving corps features the greatest wideout in team history in Mike Evans, the fastest receiver since Joey Galloway in DeSean Jackson, a reliable slot guy in Adam Humphries and a promising young player in Chris Godwin.
Tampa Bay’s tight end tandem of Cameron Brate and O.J. Howard is as talented as the tight end room in 1985, which featured Jimmie Giles, Jerry Bell and Calvin Magee, who combined for 13 touchdowns that season.
An offensive line that despite its flaws, would make Smith, Schiano, Morris, and yes, even Gruden, jealous. A pair of second-round picks that are NFL starting-caliber in Ali Marpet and Donovan Smith, a high-priced right guard in J.R. Sweezy that excels in run blocking and a veteran right tackle in Demar Dotson that is having his best season at age 32.
The Glazers have to be looking around the league and seeing Philadelphia’s second-year head coach Doug Pederson guiding the Eagles to the best record in football, and wonder if they have the right guy in Koetter. Especially with first-year head coach Sean McVay having turned around the Los Angeles Rams in no time and quickly developed quarterback Jared Goff, who was thought to be a potential bust last year.
I remember when the Glazers felt like they needed another coach to get the Bucs over the top in 2002 and jettisoned Dungy after back-to-back one-and-done playoff seasons. The guy they brought in to finish the job? Gruden.
Time appears to be running out on Koetter and if the team’s four-game losing streak isn’t snapped in New Orleans on Sunday the chorus for Gruden’s name will continue to grow louder and might be echoed by PewterReport.com if the needless losing of this talented team continues.
Scott Reynolds is in his 25th year of covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the vice president, publisher and senior Bucs beat writer for PewterReport.com. Author of the popular SR's Fab 5 column on Fridays, Reynolds oversees web development and forges marketing partnerships for PewterReport.com in addition to his editorial duties. A graduate of Kansas State University in 1995, Reynolds spent six years giving back to the community as the defensive line coach for his sons' Pop Warner team, the South Pasco Predators. Reynolds can be reached at: email@example.com
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