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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 Bucs Are Cursed!
Tampa Bay is 3-5 at the midway point in the 2018 season, a disappointing yet familiar place for the franchise to be. Over the last decade, the Bucs have had a losing record halfway through the season only once, and that came in 2010 when the team built a 10-6 record using smoke and mirrors.
1-7 in 2009 = 3-13
5-3 in 2010 = 10-6
4-4 in 2011 = 4-12
4-4 in 2012 = 7-9
0-8 in 2013 = 4-12
1-7 in 2014 = 2-14
3-5 in 2015 = 6-10
3-5 in 2016 = 9-7
2-6 in 2017 = 5-11
3-5 in 2018 = ?
A 3-5 start, which the Bucs have had in three of the last four years, has typically meant a losing record with the 2016 season being the exception. Tampa Bay won five straight games that year thanks to the defense recording a bunch of takeaways and playing great on third down. Yet at 9-7, the Bucs fell one game short of the playoffs that year.
A quick look at the schedule shows winnable games against San Francisco (2-7) and the New York Giants (1-7) and even against a beat-up team like Washington (5-3) on Sunday and two teams that may be in the downward spiral in Baltimore (4-5) and Dallas (3-5). Playing the way they are right now, hoping to score a win against Atlanta (4-4), Carolina (6-2) or New Orleans (7-1) seems nearly impossible if the Bucs keep losing the turnover margin.
Tampa Bay would need at least an 8-8 record to put the pause on regime change, and that means a 5-3 finish, which seems daunting right now. Should the Bucs have a losing record and clean house, do you trust the Glazers to hire the right general manager and head coach after hiring Mark Dominik, Raheem Morris, Greg Schiano, Lovie Smith before Jason Licht and Dirk Koetter?
Perhaps more importantly, do the Glazers even trust themselves?
No one saw Smith’s 2-14 record coming during his first season as head coach, especially after Schiano was fired for going 4-12 the previous year. That wasn’t supposed to happen.
Smith was an experienced head coach who had been to the Super Bowl before and had ties to Tampa Bay. He was replacing Schiano, who was in over his head coming from the college ranks – and yet Smith was worse.
The Bucs don’t need a new head or a general manager.
They need a witch doctor. They need a voodoo priestess. They need a Catholic priest ready to perform an exorcism.
This franchise is cursed!
Somebody, somewhere really angered the football gods.
We’re not talking about just one simple hex here. This is a full-on curse of epic proportions with many layers affecting different aspects of the franchise.
Somehow, some way, the Bucs had a good decade of football between Tony Dungy and Jon Gruden where the team posted five years of winning 10 games or more, making the playoffs six times, winning three division titles and one Super Bowl.
Since then it’s been a decade of pure suffering for Bucs fans and everybody at One Buccaneer Place.
Let’s take a closer at some of the curses that are currently in effect.
The Doug Williams Curse
In the Buccaneers’ 43 years of existence, the team has drafted five quarterbacks in the first round – the first of which was Doug Williams in 1978. After helping lead the Bucs to a 10-6 record, an NFC Central title and a playoff win to get to the NFC Championship Game in 1979 and playoff berths in 1981 and ‘82, Williams left the Bucs for the USFL over a contract dispute in 1983.
Williams was making $120,000 a year, which was the lowest salary for a starter in the league, and less than the salary of 12 backup QBs. After the ‘82 season, Williams requested a contract that would pay him $600,000 per year. Former Bucs owner Hugh Culverhouse stuck to his initial offer of $400,000 and Tampa Bay wouldn’t make the playoffs again until 1997 under Dungy and new owner Malcolm Glazer, who purchased the team in 1995.
Many thought the curse was broken when the Bucs made the playoffs in 1997, and certainly was gone by 2002 when Tampa Bay won its Super Bowl. But Williams was a quarterback drafted by this franchise and the real effects of the curse have been revealed in the present day, as none of the quarterbacks the Bucs have drafted in the first round, including Vinny Testaverde (1987), Trent Dilfer (1994), Josh Freeman (2009) and Jameis Winston (2015), would sign a second contract with the team. Dilfer, Freeman and Winston all got close before having a calamitous final season with the Bucs either due to injury (Dilfer) or performance (Freeman and Winston).
In fact, the Williams curse also extends to all quarterbacks that have been drafted by Tampa Bay, as no quarterback selected by the Bucs in any round has signed a second contract with the team. Will this curse continue in 2019? The fate and future of Winston will ultimately be determined over the last eight weeks of the season. The Bucs have picked up Winston’s $20.92 million fifth-year option, but it is only guaranteed for injury, and they could move on from him in the 2019 offseason if they want.
The Matt Bryant Curse
Former Bucs kicker Matt Bryant suffered a tragic loss when his son Tryson died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome in 2008, which was his final year in Tampa Bay. Bryant suffered a leg injury in training camp, and instead of standing by him or putting him on injured reserve, former general manager Mark Dominik cut him in training camp in favor of Mike Nugent, a high-priced kicker signed in the offseason. Bryant was an 83.1 percent kicker in Tampa Bay and had made 84 percent of his kicks in three out of his four seasons with the Bucs with his biggest kick coming in 2006 when he kicked a franchise-record 62-yard field goal to beat the Eagles.
Nugent flamed out quickly, making just 2-of-6 field goals as Bryant caught on with Atlanta later that season when he was healthy and hasn’t looked back – making 88 percent of his field goals with the Falcons over the last 10 years. Since Bryant left Tampa Bay, the Bucs have struggled to find a competent kicker, rolling through the likes of Shane Andrus, Connor Barth, Lawrence Tynes, Rian Lindell, Patrick Murray, Kyle Brindza, Roberto Aguayo, Nick Folk and now Chandler Catanzaro. That’s nine kickers in 10 years.
Just when the Bucs thought they found a long-term replacement in Barth, who kicked for them from 2009-12, the Bryant curse really went into effect. Barth made 83.3 percent of his field goals, which is nearly the exact same field goal percentage Bryant had achieved before being released, and then tore his Achilles tendon playing in a charity basketball game just before training camp in 2013.
The Bryant curse got so bad that Tynes, who was signed to replace Barth in 2013, never kicked for the Bucs as he contracted a MRSA infection in August that ended his career, forcing the team to pay him what is believed to be as much as a million dollars in a settlement that was finally reached last year. The Bucs also spent a second-round pick on Aguayo, a risky move that didn’t pan out as he was the league’s worst-rated kicker as a rookie in 2016.
Since cutting Aguayo in training camp last year, Tampa Bay is on its third kicker, as Folk didn’t last six games, and Murray, his replacement, wasn’t re-signed because he didn’t have a strong enough leg. Now the Bucs cross their fingers and pray every time Catanzaro lines up to make an extra point, and had to watch the 43-year old Bryant drill a 58-yard field goal a few weeks ago to seal the Falcons’ 34-29 win in Atlanta.
The Jon Gruden Curse
Follow the logic on this one. Malcolm Glazer was tired of the Bucs’ offensive mediocrity under Dungy and had the guts to fire the team’s all-time winningest coach and the architect of the Tampa 2 defense and make the blockbuster trade for Gruden, who won the Super Bowl in his first season in Tampa Bay in 2002. When the Bucs owner suffered a series of strokes the ownership switched to his sons, Bryan, Joel and Ed.
In 2008, the Glazer boys fired Gruden after back-to-back 9-7 seasons, three NFC South titles and a Super Bowl victory. You could argue that the franchise was going nowhere under Gruden, as mediocrity set, bad draft picks kept piling up and the Bucs roster was getting older and older with each free agent acquisition. But firing Gruden didn’t really solve anything and sent this franchise into the downward spiral it’s in now a decade later.
The Gruden curse is so bad and so powerful that it not only infected the Buccaneers, who have yet to make the playoffs since his departure, but is also infecting the Oakland Raiders since Gruden’s return to coaching this year. In 2002, Gruden was credited for helping build both Super Bowl teams – Tampa Bay and Oakland. Now he deserves the credit for destroying both, with the Bucs getting a slow death over the last decade since his departure, and the Raiders getting a swift, painful one in his first season back in Oakland.
The Monte Kiffin Curse
The glory days in Tampa Bay have all centered around great defense from the days of Hall of Famer Lee Roy Selmon and the 1979 No. 1 ranked defense in the NFL to Kiffin’s defense from 1996-2008, which featured Hall of Famers in Warren Sapp and Derrick Brooks and possible future Hall of Famers in John Lynch, Ronde Barber and Simeon Rice. When Dungy arrived in 1996, he made Kiffin his defensive coordinator and the Bucs defense was so good that the Glazers kept him and the defensive staff intact when they fired Dungy and made the trade for Gruden.
From 1996-2008, the Bucs were known for great defense for 13 years under Kiffin. It’s hard to believe in the present day with the mess that Tampa Bay’s defense is in that Kiffin’s Tampa 2 defense only ranked outside the top 10 twice. The first came in 1996, the first year under Dungy and Kiffin, and the second came in 2006 when injuries ravaged the Buccaneers across the board.
Bucs Defensive Rankings 1996-2018
2018 – 29th – 414.2
2017 – 32nd – 378.1
2016 – 23rd – 367.9
2015 – 10th – 340.4
2014 – 25th – 368.9
2013 – 17th – 348
2012 – 29th – 379.9
2011 – 30th – 394.4
2010 – 17th – 332.7
2009 – 27th – 365.6
2008 – 9th – 306.1
2007 – 2nd – 278.4
2006 – 17th –329.4
2005 – 1st – 277.8
2004 – 5th – 284.5
2003 – 5th – 279.1
2002 – 1st – 252.8
2001 – 6th – 290.8
2000 – 9th – 300
1999 – 3rd – 267.5
1998 – 2nd – 271.6
1997 – 3rd – 289.3
1996 – 11th – 300.9
(Years in italics were when Kiffin coordinated the defense)
Before the Bucs ranked 17th in total defense in the injury-marred 2006 season, Kiffin’s unit was ranked first in 2005 and second in 2007. Since Kiffin’s departure in 2008, Tampa Bay’s defense has ranked 25th or worst in the NFL seven times in the last 10 years.
Much like the Bucs’ 10-6 record in 2010, the defense’s Top 10 finish in 2015 was inconsequential because Lovie Smith had lost the team. After a 45-17 win at Philadelphia to get to 5-5, the Bucs lost five of their last six games, including four straight to end the season as Smith’s message was tuned out by the team.
While Smith did achieve a top 10 defense in 2015, his outdated Tampa 2 scheme allowed quarterbacks to complete 70 percent of their passes because they couldn’t stop the slant pass – ever.
The Bucs and their fans have always dreamed about having a fun, high-scoring offense like Green Bay’s under Brett Favre in the late 1990s, St. Louis’ under Kurt Warner in the early 2000s or New England’s under Tom Brady in the recent decade. Who knew it would come at the price of having one of the worst defenses in the league?
Considering that the Bucs hired three straight defensive-minded in coaches in Morris, Schiano and Smith, it doesn’t make it easier to believe that Tampa Bay’s fortunes will simply turnaround by replacing Koetter with another defensive-minded head coach.
The Simeon Rice Curse
Speaking of defense, you’re probably well aware of this curse, as it’s been well documented that the Bucs have not had a double-digit sacker since 2005, which was Rice’s last season in Tampa Bay. After a season in which Rice produced 14 sacks, he injured his shoulder late in the year and was unceremoniously released as he failed the Bucs’ physical on the eve of training camp in 2006.
The football gods made the Bucs feel their wrath immediately, as Tampa Bay would go on to have an injury-riddled 2006 season, finishing 4-12, which was the worst season Gruden endured as the Bucs head coach. After having a double-digit sacker for seven seasons from 1999-2005, Tampa Bay has yet to find a player that can reach double-digit sacks since Rice, who had 69.5 in his time in red and pewter.
Michael Bennett, an undrafted free agent defensive end in 2009, came close with nine sacks in 2012. Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy got as close as possible with 9.5 sacks in 2013, followed by two more seasons of 8.5 sacks in the following years.
Newly acquired defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul has a team-high eight sacks with eight games to go. He’s in tremendous position to finally break this curse, needing just two more sacks, and should do it unless he gets injury.
If Pierre-Paul can get double-digit sacks, maybe that can start a chain reaction that will help Tampa Bay lift the other curses it’s been subjected to over the last decade and beyond.
Ultimately, it’s up to the players, isn’t it? It’s up to Winston to stop throwing interceptions. It’s up to Catanzaro to make his kicks. It’s up to the defensive players to cover better, tackle better and create more takeaways. It’s up to JPP to keep sacking the quarterback.
If they can’t come through down the stretch, find an altar, grab a knife and a lamb or a chicken, and bring some holy water.