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. NO MORE MR. NICE GUY IN TAMPA BAY
It didn’t use to be like this. Fall behind by 24 points to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and you had better be calling a priest for your last rites because your chances of winning were all but dying.
It’s not like that anymore in Tampa. Not when the lowly Washington Redskins and struggling quarterback Kirk Cousins mount a stunning comeback and win 31-30, as was the case last Sunday.
It’s one thing to have Peyton Manning, Reggie Wayne, Marvin Harrison, Dallas Clark and the high-powered Indianapolis Colts offense in their prime rally from 21 points down to stun Tampa Bay on Monday Night Football in 2003 when the Buccaneers were still busy patting themselves on the back for winning the Super Bowl the year prior. It’s another thing for Cousins, Ryan Grant, Andre Roberts, Jamison Crowder and Jordan Reed do it.
Legendary Buccaneers defensive end and potential Hall of Famer Simeon Rice watched Sunday’s loss, which sent Tampa Bay to 2-4 on the year, and he didn’t like what he saw. No Bucs defender stepped up to make a play to stop the Redskins’ momentum once the score was 24-14 or even 24-21.
And up by six points with Washington driving for a game-winning touchdown, there was no sack by defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. No forced fumble by Lavonte David. No interception by Johnthan Banks.
Not one Buccaneer stepped up and made a play to stop the Redskins – when it counted. The same could be said of earlier losses this season to Tennessee, Houston and Carolina.
“The killer instinct is missing, but you need killers to have a killer instinct,” Rice said. “That’s a special, special kind of talent you need to show up consistently – not just one game. Anybody can have one game. You need to do with regularity. You have to develop that reputation, that attitude of being a killer.”
Rice was a killer on a defense full of them in Tampa Bay during their Super Bowl and subsequent seasons. The Bucs had playmakers that didn’t just dare to be great – they achieved greatness with timely, signature plays in memorable moments.
In the 1997 season opener against the San Francisco 49ers, middle linebacker Hardy Nickerson kneed quarterback Steve Young in the head and gave him a concussion. Defensive tackle Warren Sapp grabbed Jerry Rice’s facemask on an end round and tore the receiver’s ACL in the process. With two future Hall of Famers out of the game in the first half the Bucs would pull off the upset that would key Tampa Bay’s Wild Card playoff run that year.
In the 1999 Wild Card playoff game at Raymond James Stadium, strong safety John Lynch came up with a key interception against Washington and ran over to the Bucs’ sideline and spiked the ball to fire up the offense and swing momentum in Tampa Bay’s favor in the postseason victory.
In the 2002 NFC Championship Game cornerback Ronde Barber, who had been snubbed for the Pro Bowl by Philadelphia’s cornerback tandem of Troy Vincent and Bobby Taylor, picked off Donovan McNabb and returned the ball 92 yards for the game-clinching touchdown that would send the Bucs to the Super Bowl for the first time in franchise history.
“Pro Bowl my ass,” Barber said following the play, “I’m going to the Super Bowl!”
In Super Bowl XXXVII, Hall of Fame linebacker Derrick Brooks provided the dagger the Bucs needed to kill the Oakland Raiders’ comeback hopes. With Tampa Bay’s lead whittled down to 34-21 in the fourth quarter, Brooks, who was the NFL Defensive Player of the Year, picked off Rich Gannon and raced 44 yards for a game-sealing touchdown.
“When you have guys that kill momentum and step up and be able to thwart situations – that’s unique,” Rice said. “When we took the field – and I’m speaking about days gone by – we knew that no one was going to march the ball downfield on us. We knew that was our time. Those critical moments – you have to know that these are your moments to shine.
“We were actually on offense. We played defense, but we were on offense looking to make big plays. The blood-rushing moments, the gut-wrenching moments are when you’re on defense and you take away something a team does so well. You have this sack-fumble or this interception – something that breaks their momentum. That allows you to put your stamp – your signature – on a game.”
The Bucs don’t have any killers on defense. As good as the three-time Pro Bowler McCoy is, there are no signature plays or memorable sacks at the end of the game that have made a difference in his five years in Tampa Bay. David, who is often compared to Brooks in terms of stats and ability, doesn’t have a single Brooks-like moment that stands out in a meaningful game.
“They have veteran guys, but they are not dominant guys that are able to put their signature on games,” Rice said. “I don’t want to talk about history, but when you’ve had guys like myself who know what to expect in critical moments – you could almost wind your watch to it and say, ‘This is about to be a sack-fumble by Simeon.’ You could feel it in the air. You know great players by the way they play in the clutch, and you could feel a big play coming. You expected it.
“These guys just aren’t good enough. You can talk about are they too nice or are they this or that, but they’re not good enough right now. They have veterans and guys that play hard, but the talent isn’t there. Despite how hard they play they can only inflict so much on a game. You have guys in other great defenses that get double-digit sacks consistently. That’s the level to be it. It’s got to be consistent.”
The reason why former Buccaneers general manager Mark Dominik and head coach Raheem Morris had Nebraska defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh ranked ahead of McCoy in the 2010 NFL Draft was because of Suh’s nasty attitude and demeanor. Both tackles were dominant forces in college with impressive stats on great teams, but it was Suh’s edge and desire to be the best that set him apart.
Most NFL teams, including Detroit, which had the No. 2 overall pick that year, agreed, and the Lions drafted Suh. The Bucs had the third overall pick and took McCoy, who has been a three-time Pro Bowler, a two-time All-Pro and one heck of a nice guy in Tampa Bay.
Much was made over a photo of McCoy laughing it up with Cousins after the Redskins rallied from a 24-0 deficit to crush the Bucs with a 31-30 victory in the final minute of the game.
I have no problem with McCoy shaking hands and hugging opponents after games –win or lose. Most NFL players do it, and some even swap jerseys and pose for pictures with former pro or college teammates. The NFL is a fraternity.
I also don’t have a problem with McCoy helping opponents up off the ground. Although I didn’t cover the Bucs in the late 1970s and early 1980s, I’ve been told that Hall of Famer Lee Roy Selmon was that way. Selmon, who also played at Oklahoma, was a gentle giant, and if McCoy wants to follow in his footsteps and be a good sport so be it.
Because of the position he plays – the three-technique defensive tackle – many Bucs fans want McCoy to be the next Sapp, who lived up to his QB Killa nickname. McCoy doesn’t have to act like Sapp, who was a moody, foul-mouthed jerk in addition to being an absolute terror on the football field. But given the fact that he cashed in on a six-year, $95.2-million deal last year it’s time that McCoy started playing like Sapp.
Sapp made plays when it counted in the clutch, with a big, momentum-changing sack or a QB pressure that forced an interception. He took over games and you could feel his presence, which is something that McCoy has yet to do in his fifth year in the league.
“Is he too nice? Nice is opening doors and walking old ladies across the street,” Rice said. “Just because you see a guy talking after the game with another guy – it’s kind of an indication, but it doesn’t mean it’s problematic. It’s just two comrades talking. Everybody internalizes things differently.
“The real consequences come with your approach to the game and the way you play the game. I don’t think this defense is good enough this year. Sometimes you just have to say that the talent level of the guys they put out on the field last week wasn’t good enough. To be up 24-0 and not to be able to get that done, I just don’t think they have the bodies to make the plays in that moment. If they were a great team they wouldn’t have allowed [the Redskins] back in the game when the game was on the line. They’re just not at the point in their careers where they can exert their wills and break another team.”
Sapp willed his team to win. He ruled with an iron fist in the locker room, in the meeting room, on the practice field and in the huddle on game day. McCoy doesn’t have to be that guy, but if he’s not going to be, then the Bucs need someone to step into the role.
I fear that someone is not on the current Bucs roster.
Like Selmon, former Bucs fullback Mike Alstott and running back Warrick Dunn were good guys and good sports. So were Lynch and Brooks, who is the greatest Buccaneer of all time. But those Bucs legends played with some nasty players who brought some much-needed balance to Tampa Bay’s roster with their cutthroat attitudes.
Former Bucs defensive end Chidi Ahanotu, Nickerson, Sapp, Rice and Barber all had an edge to them. The current Bucs roster doesn’t have balance. It’s got a roster full of nice guys that don’t have a killer mentality, especially in the fourth quarter. The proof is a 4-18 record over the last 22 games, including a 3-10 mark in games decided by a touchdown or less.
Bucs head coach and defensive play-caller Lovie Smith admitted it on Monday.
“Yes, I agree,” Smith said. “No matter what we call it, we had a 24-0 lead. But, 24-0, that’s early in the game and, really, it was 17-0, they were driving and we got a defensive touchdown. So it was a little bit closer [than it seemed]. But 24-7 in the second half. Now, I’m going to go all the way down to a six-point lead at the end of the game. One stop. So, what it takes – that’s what we’re missing right now. That’s what we’re trying to find.
“Composure or just somebody stepping up and making a play in the situation. As you look throughout [Sunday’s game], they made some tough catches on that last drive. And they were almost perfect with what they did. Eventually we are going to get to a place where, yes, where we want that situation, our defensive line wants that. That’s the time when you get sacks, strip-fumbles, all of that, and a chance to get some picks. We’re not there yet.”
Tampa Bay cornerback Mike Jenkins, who was targeted four times on Washington’s final drive and allowed 42 yards on four catches, indicated that the Bucs defenders weren’t focused enough to rise to the occasion when the game was on the line.
“Lack of focus,” Jenkins said. “We have to hold ourselves to a [higher] standard and look in the mirror and get right. It’s a lack of focus. We just have to focus and be more mentally focused. It’s just a lack of focus on our part. That’s something we can correct.
“That was a time when we needed to drop everything and ball out, but that was one of those opportunities that we let slip away. Hopefully if this opportunity comes again we will be able to man up.”
Rice still follows the Buccaneers and bleeds pewter and red. Like most Tampa Bay fans he was sick to his stomach over what he saw from his former team, especially on the defensive side of the ball, against Washington.
“When I played against the Redskins and was getting four sacks a game, it’s about when are they coming and in what fashion?” Rice said. “You don’t have guys that show out right now. You have guys that are continuing to develop. There’s nothing wrong with that, but time is of the essence. [The fans] don’t want to see a developmental squad. They don’t want to see that. They want to see big plays and in a game like that when you are up 24-0 – you have to win. Not only do you allow a team to come back in that game, but win the game? That’s pathetic, but that’s where they are right now. They could have put their stamp on that game, but they didn’t. Unfortunately, that’s where they are right now as a team.”
Rice did like what he saw from rookie quarterback Jameis Winston, who played his best game in the NFL to date, and Tampa Bay’s offense, as it rolled up 497 yards and 23 points at Washington.
“They don’t have those guys that are capable of making those kind of plays on defense, but they do on offense,” Rice said. “They have that receiver Mike Evans, who showed out this weekend. He did his thing. You have that young quarterback and those running backs that went nuts. They have some pieces in place that even [our Bucs teams in the 2000s] didn’t have offensively.
“Once they get going – and they will – they’ll turn this thing around. But it’s not going to be quick. It’s going to be a marathon. The Bucs are a team in flux – a team in development. They had a bad game last week – an incredibly bad game.”
It’s time for David to consistently make splash plays. It’s time for Banks to consistently make interceptions, especially for a cornerback unit that doesn’t have any through the first six games of the season.
After two drafts that focused all but one draft pick on the offensive side of the ball, it’s time for general manager Jason Licht, director of player personnel Jon Robinson and director of college scouting Mike Biehl to have a defensive-driven draft and find some defenders that are not only talented, but have a killer instinct to make big plays in clutch situations in big games.
But perhaps more importantly, it’s time for McCoy to decide he wants to be a defensive tackle more like Sapp than Santana Dotson. It’s time for McCoy to be great, and for his next 31.5 sacks to become way more meaningful than his first 31.5 sacks were.
“You had a culmination of guys on our team, myself included – because no one on the planet could block me – with that sense of urgency,” Rice said. “It starts there. Nobody led me. I wasn’t led by anybody other than my own emotions and my own spirit. I was able to play and perform amongst guys that were on the same page as me. We fed off each other, but you can’t compare these Bucs to that defense. That was one of the greatest defenses in the history of the game.
“This is a new chapter. This is a new beginning, but it looks promising. They are going to go through a rough patch, though. This team is ascending. This is not the end product. This is the beginning of something that is going to be unique for a very long time. That quarterback is a very unique player. Those young guys are growing. They are about three or four players away defensively from being good.”
Whether it’s McCoy and David finally ascending to the point where they can consistently take over games and become dominant, or whether it’s Licht and the front office having to draft some killers, Tampa Bay’s defense won’t get much better until the mental toughness of the current players changes or new players arrive next year. No more Mr. Nice Guy in Tampa Bay.
“There are a few guys that can develop into dominant players,” Rice said. “I think McCoy can. He has all the tools. But will he be able to show it to the world? Having it is one thing. Showing it is another. That’s what we’re excited to see. That’s why we watch the game – to see if these guys can live up to their talent.
“You have to have that innate desire to be better than what you are or to become what you want to see yourself as. You are constantly in pursuit of something that is unique inside of you that you want to showcase to the world. Each game provides a platform for you to deal with that. Someone has to step up and show the team that this is the direction we are going in. Then everyone will start following. It excites you. It was like that when I played in Arizona and it was like that when I came to Tampa. It was one of those infectious things. The more players you have like that the better you are, the more unique you are, and it’s a status unlike anything the league has ever seen. But they don’t have that right now.”
FAB 2. LICHT AND CO. HAVE DONE A GOOD JOB OF ADDING RECENT TALENT
Buccaneers general manager Jason Licht knew he couldn’t do it all this offseason. He couldn’t fix Tampa Bay’s offense and defense and fill the roster with Pro Bowlers in free agency and the draft. Adding talent each year is always a game of hit and miss, and every team’s G.M. always tries to hit more than he misses.
Licht is quickly learning that free agency is not a trustworthy avenue for upgrading talent, but stockpiled the defense with players like linebacker Bruce Carter, safety Chris Conte, cornerback Tim Jennings and defensive tackle Henry Melton that were familiar with the Tampa 2 scheme in an attempt to help that side of the ball. He had to do that because the Bucs had planned to address the offense – specifically the quarterback position and the offensive line – with a heavy emphasis on the draft for a second straight year.
Conte and Melton have proven to be free agent hits, while Carter and Jennings have been misses – in addition to Licht’s trade for defensive end George Johnson, who was acquired via a trade with Detroit. With four rookie starters – including quarterback Jameis Winston, offensive linemen Donovan Smith and Ali Marpet and linebacker Kwon Alexander – this year’s draft has been tremendous for Licht and the Buccaneers.
I recall former Bucs general manager Bruce Allen telling me that the most helpless feeling for a G.M. is in September when most teams’ rosters are finalized and there aren’t typically any saviors on the street. Yet Licht, Robinson and director of football administration Mike Greenberg did a tremendous job in August and September with some key late-season free agent additions.
When right tackle Demar Dotson went down with a knee injury, Licht and Greenberg were quick to sign veteran Gosder Cherilus on August 17 before Minnesota or Kansas City could meet with him. Cherilus has played well in Dotson’s absence.
On September 7, Licht and Robinson also had the foresight to sign wide receiver Donteea Dye, defensive end Howard Jones and cornerback Jude Adjei-Barimah to the practice squad. Dye and Adjei-Barimah had impressed during training camp and the preseason, while Jones was a pass rusher that intrigued the scouts the way Jacquies Smith had during the same time a year ago.
Bucs head coach Lovie Smith and the front office liked their effort and the strides they were making in practice and they were signed to the active roster after a few weeks on the practice squad. All three contributed in last week’s game at Washington with Jones scoring a touchdown on a fumble recovery, Dye scoring a touchdown on his first NFL reception and Adjei-Barimah making a special teams tackle, getting a pass breakup at the goal line and recording two tackles in extended action on defense.
Buccaneers like Dotson are impressed with the quality of talent – sometimes unknown – the front office brings in.
“I heard that Dye was an undrafted free agent – a walk-on try-out,” Dotson said. “I didn’t know that, but that made me feel good because I came from that same background as a walk-on here. Lovie always stresses it doesn’t matter where you come from or how you get here. He’s going to put the best guys on the field and give everyone a chance.
“This is definitely the place where you can say it’s the land of opportunity. If you work hard … and you see a guy like Dye, he’s out there on a Tuesday, which is his day off, out there with the JUGGS machine catching balls. He’s got guys from the equipment room throwing to him. He has the mentality that he’s hungry and it’s paying off for him. He had his first touchdown last week. They can find a diamond in the rough, an undrafted guy that started from the bottom – those are usually the hungriest guys.”
In addition to some of the unknown rookie talent, Licht and Robinson also found some more familiar names in defensive tackle Tony McDaniel, who had played with nose tackle Clinton McDonald in Seattle, on August 11 and center Joe Hawley, who had played for offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter in Atlanta for the past three seasons, on September 14. Hawley saw action in Week 2 at New Orleans when starter Evan Smith went down with an ankle injury and has been the starter ever since.
“Joe is a starter,” Dotson said. “Joe has started a lot of games in the NFL for the Falcons. When you have a guy like that who has been through the fire you can have him step him when a guy like Evan goes down. Joe stepped in and kept this train going. When Evan got hurt there was no drop off.
“It shows what kind of G.M. we got and what kind of personnel people we’ve got. To find guys like Gosder and Joe, who have experience, to step in like savvy veterans and keep the train moving is great. This organization has done a great job with personnel, especially along the offensive line. We just have to show it with some wins.”
Hawley and Cherilus have been great finds and have helped Tampa Bay’s offense put up 54 points and 966 yards over the past two weeks. Without Vincent Jackson this week in Atlanta, Dye will be counted on to score more touchdowns, while Adjei-Barimah and Jones will need to do even more to help the Bucs defense prevent the Falcons from scoring touchdowns and holding them to field goals.
Saddled with a 2-4 record, it’s obvious that the Buccaneers need to acquire more talent to right the ship and make a playoff push in 2016. But with some late additions in the preseason and at the start of the regular season, Licht, Robinson and the team’s scouts aren’t waiting until next year to try to improve the roster.
FAB 3. TAMPA BAY’S O-LINE IS READY TO FIGHT
Buccaneers center Joe Hawley’s nickname is “Brawly Hawley” because the feisty, undersized lineman doesn’t back down from anyone. The reason why he’s fit in so well and has overtaken Evan Smith as the starter is because his approach to blocking is exactly what Tampa Bay offensive line coach George Warhop wants.
Warhop came under fire last year as the Bucs offensive underachieved and was full of turmoil brought on by Anthony Collins’ laziness and petulant attitude. Oniel Cousins and Patrick Omameh also underperformed, while right tackle Demar Dotson became the most penalized Buccaneer.
Due to the fact that Dotson started the season on injured reserve with a designation to return after suffering a preseason knee injury, Tampa Bay currently has four new starting offensive linemen, including rookie guard Ali Marpet and rookie tackle Donovan Smith. Only left guard Logan Mankins remains as a starter from a year ago.
“Inside this building nobody ever questioned Hop,” Dotson said. “Nobody questioned the line coach that he is and the experience he has in this league. We just needed to get the continuity we have now going. You can point fingers all day because the offensive line didn’t play well last year.
“Hop stressed that we weren’t going to have the same performance that we had on the field last year or you weren’t going to be here. We’re not going to put up with some of the stuff that went on last year. We got rid of the guys that weren’t willing to buy in and we got a whole new group of offensive linemen that have bought into Hop’s system and are willing to compete.”
And compete they do. Over the last three games, Tampa Bay’s offensive line has helped the Bucs average 425 yards and 25.6 points per game.
“I think our offense has been clicking a lot better and we’ve been playing a lot harder,” Hawley said. “When one or two guys start playing like that the others take notice. You don’t want to be the guy just standing around the pile, especially with our backs because they fight for extra yardage. They break tackles and make guys miss like I’ve never seen before. You never know when you’re going to throw the block to spring them an extra five, 10, 15 yards downfield.”
Here is how Tampa Bay’s offense has performed over the last three games:
Tampa Bay vs. Carolina
411 yards, 23 points
Tampa Bay vs. Jacksonville
369 yards, 31 points
Tampa Bay at Washington
497 yards, 23 points
The Bucs offensive line did more than compete against the Redskins. It fought. Right tackle Gosder Cherilus was flagged 15 yards for pulling Redskins off a pile to protect Hawley, who was getting roughed up by a Washington defensive lineman on the ground. That led to some pushing and shoving on the first play of the second quarter.
“I thought we did a good job of playing really hard and not backing down,” Hawley said. “It definitely got chippy there for a bit. I’m glad they have my back and I have their backs. When you play like that – you can’t cost the team penalties, but knowing that we’re all sticking together and it’s much harder to have to deal with all five guys instead of just one.”
When Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston was hit late by Redskins safety Dashon Goldson in the third quarter after a scramble, Marpet stepped in and yanked Goldson up and then proceeded to push him around. Goldson flopped to the ground fter a final push, which drew a 15-yard penalty against Marpet.
“Anytime someone is taking cheap shots on your teammates you have to help them out,” Marpet said. “We’re all teammates and we are here to support each other, especially our quarterback. When someone takes a cheap shot we are all there, swarming and helping our guy.”
Winston, who is just six games into a very promising NFL career, appreciated Marpet coming to his aid.
“We fight for each other,” Winston said. “Fight is a strong term, but we battle for each other. Not only are we playing with each other, we’re playing for each other. I love my teammates. We love each other and we don’t want anyone to try and intentionally hurt one another. As an offensive lineman, that’s the mentality, ‘I’m trying to protect my quarterback’. Me and Ali came in here together. Me, Ali and Donovan better have a tighter bond than anybody. It’s just competing. Some of those calls can go any way, it’s just who they see. I believe it was a flop [by Goldson], but Ali is going to fight for me.”
There is a fine line between doing what is necessary to defend a teammate and crossing the line and getting a 15-yard penalty, which hurts the offense and stymies drives. Yet after getting pushed around too much last year, it’s a welcome sight to see Tampa Bay’s new offensive line showing some toughness and muscle on Sundays.
“The best teams I’ve been a part of the offensive line fights together and plays hard together and protects each other,” Hawley said. “If one of us gets into a scuffle, all of a sudden, all of us are going to be flying in. If they mess with our quarterback we’re going to be right there in their face.
“You can tell when you watch film that offensive lines that play hard and back those guys up the defenses can tell and they don’t want any part of it. Then you can watch a team where the QB gets hit and the offensive linemen are about 10 feet away and they are just moseying over – it just says a lot about what kind of guys they are.”
Tampa Bay’s defense could take some recent cues from the play of the offensive line and develop more of a nasty attitude.
“When you turn on the film and watch all five guys – they are running to the ball and hustling,” Dotson said. “They’re fighting on every play and that’s the kind of mentality that Hop, our offensive line coach, has been trying to build since he got here. Now he’s starting to see it on film. We have the right kind of guys here now. We don’t have any superstars or big heads. We have guys that want to come here and work. Even an old guy like Logan, who is in his 11th or 12th season, is running hard and working. When you have five guys playing as one, that’s what you want on an offensive line.”
FAB 4. LOVIE’S LOSER MENTALITY
Part of the reason why the Buccaneers are 4-18 in the Lovie Smith regime, including a 2-4 mark this season is due to the fact that the Buccaneers aren’t attempting to score on every possession, which is ludicrous and a sign of questionable coaching. As I mentioned in my Monday column, Smith seems to have an aversion to scoring points before halftime if Tampa Bay has the lead or it’s a close game – and it came back to bite the Bucs in Sunday’s 31-30 loss to Washington.
There is a pattern of poor game management I outlined on Monday, pointing out that Smith was complacent in going into halftime with timeouts in his pocket, trailing 10-7 last year against St. Louis at home instead of trying for a game-tying field goal. The Bucs wound up losing that game 19-17.
Earlier this year, Smith didn’t properly use his timeouts against Carolina and had to kick a field goal – which Kyle Brindza missed – after getting the ball down to the Panthers’ 6-yard line with just a few seconds left before halftime. Tampa Bay could have tied the game at 17-17 with a touchdown, but the missed field goal kept the 17-10 lead in the Panthers’ favor. The Bucs lost momentum heading into halftime and lost the game 37-23.
The next week against Jacksonville, Smith decided to sit on a 20-14 lead with 29 seconds left and three timeouts in his pocket. The Bucs had the ball at their own 35-yard line and needed about 35 yards to get into Connor Barth’s field goal range. Instead of trying to push the score to 23-14 and make it a two-score game, Smith decided to play it conservative.
“We felt like we were in pretty good shape,” Smith said after the game. “Yeah, we could have [tried to score]. We didn’t want anything bad to happen then. We were okay coming back out and playing ball from there.”
The Bucs hung on to a seven-point win in a 38-31 victory.
Tampa Bay was up 24-7 at Washington with 1:20 left before halftime and had three timeouts. Instead of maintaining an attack mentality, Smith took his foot off the Bucs’ gas pedal and was complacent with a 17-point lead on the road.
Smith was content to run the clock in the first half instead of trying for more points. Starting at Tampa Bay’s own 12-yard line, running back Charles Sims rushed for eight yards and then received the good fortune of a Redskins timeout with 1:15 left. On the next play, Sims gained four yards and a first down, but Smith just let the clock run.
As time was ticking down and 30 seconds needlessly ran off the clock, Sims dashed for 13 additional yards to the Tampa Bay 37. Only then did Smith elect to call his first timeout of the half. A holding call on the next play brought the ball back to the Tampa Bay 27, but there was still 35 seconds left before halftime and two timeouts left to help try to get another field goal on the scoreboard.
Tampa Bay would lose to Washington by one point – 31-30 – and could have used another Barth field goal on Sunday. During Monday’s press conference, I brought up the Rams game last year, and the Panthers and Jaguars games this season and asked Smith about his pattern of running out the clock instead of wanting to score additional points before halftime. Would he change his conservative ways?
“No, not at all,” Smith said. “Not in that situation [Sunday]. We had a good lead, felt real good about it. Our strategy for that, first off, was to see if we could get something going. We did. And then we were getting ready to take off, we felt like we had enough time to do something, but we got a penalty.
“At the end of the game, you always want more points, but in that situation I didn’t think we needed it. We were okay, 24-7 going in (to halftime).”
Smith admits that he felt like the Bucs didn’t need any more points before halftime. It’s that type of mentality that has Tampa Bay at 4-18 under his watch.
No lead is safe in the NFL, and Sunday was a prime example. Jacksonville had a 27-3 lead over Buffalo in London, but held onto a 34-31 victory. New Orleans was up 27-0 over Indianapolis, but staved off the Colts’ charge to win 27-21. Miami climbed to a 41-0 lead over Houston, but withstood the Texans’ rally to win 44-26.
Of the four teams to jump out to a lead of 24 points or more on Sunday, only Tampa Bay lost – but it didn’t have to be that way.
As I mentioned on Monday, former Bucs head coach Jon Gruden told me that NFL teams get on average between 10-12 possessions each game. Due to Washington’s successful onside kick Tampa Bay only had nine possessions on Sunday because one of those possessions was robbed. As a result, the Bucs only tried to score on eight of those possessions.
Smith’s excuse for not wanting to score before halftime is shortsighted.
“What could happen in that situation?” Smith said. “I think more bad things could happen in that situation.”
In other words, he didn’t want a turnover to give the defense momentum and have the chance for points backfire. Yet by believing that he’s also not seeing the added momentum of getting more points and either tying a game, taking the lead or adding to a lead that could come with a field goal or touchdown before halftime.
For reasons that don’t make sense to me, Smith is also putting more weight on a drive before halftime than any other drive in the first half. If he takes a “I think more bad things could happen” approach to the last drive before halftime why doesn’t he take that approach on the opening possession of the game, or the third possession?
Why is Smith more scared of an interception before halftime, than at any other time in the game? How is a possible momentum swing prior to halftime worse than one in the third quarter like what happened at Washington?
Part of the reason why New England is a dynasty, won the Super Bowl last year and is undefeated this year is because head coach Bill Belichick, a future Hall of Famer, always defers to the second half and then desperately tries to get points on every possession prior to halftime. The Patriots try to get two scores back-to-back – going into halftime and coming out of it – to put opponents away.
That’s an aggressive, winning mentality – one that Smith obviously doesn’t subscribe to.
Of course Belichick has a future Hall of Famer quarterback in Tom Brady, and Smith is saddled with a rookie quarterback in Jameis Winston, right? I’ll point out that Winston has played some great, turnover-free football the past two games against Jacksonville and Washington, and actually thrives in an up-tempo, no-huddle offense.
The more experience a rookie like Winston can get in a two-minute situation the better for his development, so why not give him as many opportunities as he can to speed up his growth?
Smith got testy with my line of questioning on Monday, and didn’t appreciate the fact that I mentioned the games against the Rams last season, in addition to the Panthers and Jaguars games this year when discussing what did and didn’t transpire before halftime against the Redskins on Sunday.
“Don’t bring the rest of the games in here, either,” Smith said. “Each one of them is a totally different situation. Where we were [Sunday], no, I felt really good about where we were coming out [from halftime], of course, with the ball after that.”
Smith is wrong to suggest that it’s not right to talk about the other games and just isolate the Redskins game while discussion his low-risk approach to points before halftime. There is a disturbing pattern here of Smith refusing to try to score on most possessions right before halftime whether the Bucs are trailing by a few a points or ahead. He admits that 24 points and a 17-point lead were good enough against Washington heading into halftime and it came back to bite him.
Quite frankly, it’s a loser’s mentality and part of the reason Smith has a 4-18 record in Tampa Bay.
FAB 5. SR’s BUC SHOTS
• Bucs rookie quarterback Jameis Winston had his best NFL game on Sunday, completing 21-of-29 passes for 297 yards with two touchdowns and no turnovers. Winston’s day could have been even better as he had a third touchdown pass taken off the board on a very questionable offensive pass interference penalty on wide receiver Mike Evans in the third quarter.
Winston eluded two Redskins defensive linemen while running back about 10 yards behind the line of scrimmage, dodged another one while stepping up and heaving a 20-yard touchdown strike to Evans in the end zone that was right on the money. It’s the kind of highlight TD pass that Winston routinely made at Florida State that led the Bucs to draft him with their first overall pick.
“It was a great play,” Evans said. “He’s getting a great feel for those kind of plays. He game me a chance and it worked other than the penalty. I saw him get hit during the play and he made it look so easy in the game, but it looked harder on film. He made a great play right there.”
It’s a shame the touchdown pass was nullified because that’s the type of highlight play that would have been broadcast all over ESPN. Winston showed incredible poise and concentration on that play to keep his eyes downfield on Evans. If that touchdown had counted chances are the Bucs would have won and Winston – not Washington QB Kirk Cousins – might have been the NFC Offensive Player of the Week.
• Bucs head coach Lovie Smith came to the defense of defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, who was photographed laughing and shaking hands with Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins after the 31-30 loss to the Redskins. McCoy was a non-factor in the game with just two tackles and a 15-yard personal foul penalty, and many Bucs fans took umbrage with the photo, which possibly suggested that McCoy wasn’t too upset with the defeat.
“As you look at the NFL, they all know someone [on the opposing team],” Smith said. “So I don’t think that if a guy greets someone from the other side, that that guy doesn’t really feel bad. [Washington defensive backs coach] Perry Fewell was on my staff for a few years, [Washington defensive coordinator] Joe Barry, when Joe first started out, we’re pretty close still. You could have taken a picture of me hugging them after the game. That’s what you do. But, believe me, I felt bad, all right? But if you caught that [moment] right then, it could say a different story than how it really was. I don’t think you should judge anybody based on that. I know how Gerald felt after that game. He felt like the rest of us did – really bad.”
• Bucs wide receiver Mike Evans came through with his best game of the season, catching eight passes for 164 against the Redskins, including a 40-yard touchdown on the opening drive. With veteran receiver Vincent Jackson out this week against Atlanta, Evans is prepared to continue to shoulder the responsibility of being the lead performer in the passing game.
“It’s frustrating, but it is what it is,” Evans said. “Those guys are down, so I’ve got to take the bulk of the pressure on me. I have to make more plays. When those guys come back hopefully it jumpstarts us even more.”
The Bucs should be able to have tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins back this week. Seferian-Jenkins has been out since the middle of the Week 2 win at New Orleans, which was the only game this season where Evans, Jackson and Seferian-Jenkins were on the field together.
“Vincent Jackson is one of the best receivers in the game over the last 10 years,” Evans said. “Austin can be one of the best tight ends in the league and he showed what he can do in Week 1. He’s a beast. When we get all those guys healthy and on the field at the same time we can be really, really good.”
Rookie wide receiver Donteea Dye, who caught a touchdown on his first NFL pass last week at Washington, and Adam Humphries, who was signed from the practice squad, will also have to step up now that the team has lost slot receiver Louis Murphy for the year with a torn ACL.
“All of those guys can make plays,” Evans said. “We’ve seen it in practice. We’ve seen it in the preseason. We saw Dye catch his first touchdown in the game – and well deserved because he works so hard.”
• Speaking of Bucs rookie receiver Donteea Dye, a look at the coaches camera view on Doug Martin’s big 49-yard run in the fourth quarter reveals that he missed his block on Redskins cornerback Bashaud Breeland, who made the tackle at the Washington 4-yard line to prevent a touchdown. The Redskins defense would hold on third down and force the Bucs to settle for a field goal.
When I broached this subject with Dye this week at One Buccaneer Place he felt terrible about his missed block.
“Yes, man!” Dye said. “I feel so bad about that. I was supposed to be right there with him, but the game is a little faster [than I expected]. It was my first full NFL game and things were moving fast. There are a lot of things I have to get better at. It’s a very teachable moment. I have to learn from it and get better.
“Whether it’s catching touchdowns or blocking, I just want to get the ‘W.’ I like blocking. I wasn’t a good blocker in college and it was something my coach made me work on my sophomore year. He said that’s a big part of the run game – perimeter blocking. I like being aggressive. I’ve got to better, though.”
• Tampa Bay right tackle Demar Dotson is on the mend and is slated to return from injured reserve next week. He hopes to make his 2015 regular season debut against the New York Giants at Raymond James Stadium.
“I hope I can play next week,” Dotson said. “I get off IR next week. I’m hoping once I get off it I can play. I’m sure once they put me out there I’m not going to be where I want to be, but I can get out there and compete and get the job done. Hopefully once Atlanta’s over with I can get out there and help this team.”
• Bucs offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter opened his Wednesday press conference with a candid admission of guilt for the dreaded play call for a toss to Charles Sims on third-and-goal inside the Redskins’ 1 yard-line. The Redskins had outflanked the side of the field Sims was running to and he was stopped for a 2-yard loss.
“Okay, everybody get this straight, all right? I screwed it up, nobody else,” Koetter said. “I screwed it up, plain and simple. We’ve got a check play on where we were checking on the goal line based on overload personnel. They had some injuries so they switched some guys around. I gave Jameis [Winston] bad information. One hundred, 1,000 – whatever number you want to use – percent on me, nobody else. Simple – all right? That simple. Put that to bed. I screwed it up. I’ve got to live with it. I feel horrible. I can’t take it back. I did it.”
Further review of the play shows an open “A gap” to Winston’s right where he could have audibled to a quarterback sneak and used his 6-foot-4 frame to lunge three feet to score a touchdown. Winston is a rookie right now and he’s going to be a good soldier and do exactly what Koetter tells him to do. But with more experience under his belt as he grows and develops, Winston will see those openings and take it upon himself to check out of that run and into a QB sneak for a game-winning score.
• My Monday morning column in which I suggested Tampa Bay head coach Lovie Smith should be fired having a dreadful 4-18 record (.222) after a stunning 31-30 loss at Washington received a lot of attention, and most Bucs fans that commented agreed with my stance based upon the factual evidence that I laid out. The biggest objection against my argument was that the Bucs need to give Smith more time and that the lack of continuity from changing head coaches every two or three years impedes a franchise’s progress.
Smith is stressing patience and the need for more time. But if he isn’t the right head coach after all, and is another Sam Wyche – a former “name coach” that had taken his former team to the Super Bowl like Smith did in Chicago – then the Glazers are simply wasting time.
Cleveland gave Romeo Crennel four years (2005-08) and he finished 24-40 (.375). Tom Cable (2008-10) took over as an interim head coach in Oakland in 2008 after Lane Kiffin was fired and went 17-27 (.386) in 44 games while leading the Raiders before he was fired. Jacksonville, which is 2-5 this season, has signaled that Gus Bradley is safe for the rest of this year and possibly 2016. That may be the kiss of death, though as Bradley is just 9-30 (.300) in his 39 games leading the Jaguars.
Patience does not always pay off. The Glazers need to go with their gut instinct at the end of the season, and if they see the Bucs rally towards the end of the 2015 campaign and they feel like Smith deserves a third season then they should keep him. If they don’t want to continue with poor game management and losing games the Bucs should win and aren’t satisfied with Smith’s winning percentage, which will be in the 22-35 percent range by the end of the year, then they should fire him.
Continuity is desirable – with the right head coach. I’m just not sure Smith is the right coach for the Buccaneers based on what I’ve seen over the past 26 games with him at the helm in Tampa Bay.
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