Has the Bucs' plan gone awry?
The Bucs have for nearly three years been championing their master plan, one which involves scrapping the old and starting anew with young players who can grow together. In the process, they’ve decided to almost completely eschew free agency, choosing instead to go with players they’ve acquired through the draft or via other means.
It makes a lot of sense. The team under former coach Jon Gruden had become old and slow, lacking playmaking on both sides of the ball. It never seemed to be building toward something substantial but, rather, adding spare parts and expecting different results.
As a result, many fans bought in to the new plan. And it certainly struck me as a reasonable approach, too.
But here the Bucs are, two and a half years into the Raheem Morris-Mark Dominik regime, standing a crossroads at 4-5 with a tough slate of games to come. They are playing some of the worst football on this side of 3-13, and things appear to be unraveling.
So, yes, now might be a good time to ask whether their grand plan has gone awry.
Before we go on, a little perspective is in order. The mob mentality is growing in the wake of Sunday’s loss to Houston. People want coaches fired, players cut and heads rolling. It’s been conveniently forgotten, however, that the Bucs just more than a week ago were playing for first place in the NFC South.
But this is the NFL, and the only thing that matters is what you’ve done lately. In that regard, the Bucs are a mess, losing three straight games and four of five. And their choice to build the team in this fashion is a major factor.
There are many reasons why it’s fair to question this plan. Here are just a few:
Reason No. 1: When the Bucs made their talent evaluations during the offseason, they needed to take into account that the first- and second-year players who succeeded last season had not done so over a sustained period of time. You know why NFL people say you need three years to judge a draft? Because you don’t know what you have until then.
Was it wise to expect the same level of play from players who had only excelled for one season? With so many of the Bucs’ key players underperforming right now, that answer seems complicated.
Right now, it is hard not to think the front office overestimated the talent level of this team.
Reason No. 2: This is closely related to my last point. One of the problems with starting so many young players at critical positions is the fact that few of them had to fight for their jobs. There were precious few position battles in training camp, and one of the reasons for that was that most incumbent starters were unchallenged.
When a team’s lineup remains as static as the Bucs’ did, it suggests it was a fairly complete team. The Bucs, despite being 10-6 last season, clearly had weaknesses. Very few of those were addressed. Young players who needed to improve had no incentive to do so, with few having to legitimately earn their jobs.
Reason No. 3: Leadership often is an overrated quality in sports. The overwhelming majority of outcomes are decided by talent, pure and simple. But when a team is at a crisis point, as the Bucs are now, leadership is essential.
The Bucs have a severe lack of leadership, and that was painfully obvious on Sunday. That’s when, of all people, newly-signed defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth admitted to trying to rally players in the defensive huddle who appeared to have checked out mentally. The effort they displayed suggested they had better things to do.
When players don’t play to the whistle or do what’s expected of them, someone needs to set a tone. Someone needs to grab a face mask or two and get teammates in check. That didn’t happen on defense and seems unlikely to happen.
Veteran cornerback Ronde Barber, who is playing well, has never been demonstrative and leads mostly by example. Linebacker Quincy Black doesn’t seem to have fully embraced a leadership role despite his contract extension. Mason Foster, the middle linebacker who is charged with running the defensive huddle, is a rookie and has no real authority.
On offense, the Bucs have a group of receivers comprised almost entirely of players with two years of experience or less. Quarterback Josh Freeman has tried to exert his influence by holding players accountable, but his own recent struggles are likely a hindrance.
Morris might yell and scream this week. Maybe he’ll bench a guy or two. But, sometimes, the best pressure is peer pressure. These players need to be accountable to each other.
So, is the plan a lost cause? Not yet. But is it working? Right now, despite all we’ve heard from the Bucs, that’s a very tough sell.