When you watch the Buccaneers, you’ll see something new yet familiar every week.
On Sunday, they accomplished something never done before: They gained more than 500 yards and scored only three points. No team has done so much and so little all at the same time.
How does that happen?
Mistakes. The NFL punishes teams that make them.
Tampa Bay made several in the 16-3 loss; Washington didn’t.
It was an ugly game that featured the usual Bucs staples: a slew of turnovers, a couple of missed field goals, a late letdown and a crestfallen coach. Everything they have ever done or will ever do, they will do over and over and over again.
It was painful to watch but perhaps necessary. Even the most optimistic die-hard fan can’t deny the objective reality any longer: This is a bad football team. It isn’t getting better. And it won’t get better.
All Washington did was shine a light on the Bucs’ mistakes, and not just the ones they made Sunday. Let’s get to the autopsy:
Mistakes vs. Washington: Three turnovers, including two in the red zone.
The Bucs went all-in this season on Jameis Winston despite his troubles on and off the field. They knew about his propensity for turnovers. They knew about sexual assault accusations and a likely suspension. But he threw for 4,000 yards in each of his first two seasons and that one time in Philadelphia he threw five touchdown passes, sooooo ...
So they re-signed backup Ryan Fitzpatrick, crossed their fingers and hoped. No one ever expected Fitzpatrick to be Kurt Warner, but he was supposed to be something of a mentor to Winston. He has turned out to be less Mr. Miyagi and more a Winston clone.
That shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone. They came into this season with nearly identical career completion percentages, touchdown percentages, interception percentages and passer ratings. How exactly was Fitzpatrick going to teach Winston how to take care of the ball? Granted, Fitzpatrick’s beard, magic and humble demeanor are mesmerizing, but the Bucs have football people who should see through that kind of hocus pocus. When Fitzpatrick becomes a free agent after this season, ownership needs to tie those football people to the mast of a ship until the urge to re-sign him passes.
Mistakes vs. Washington: Two missed field goals.
If Cleveland is where quarterbacks go to bury their careers, Tampa Bay is where kickers go. Chandler Catanzaro, who used to be perfectly fine, is the latest to experience The Bucs Life.
Maybe it’s time to pay Matt Bryant a visit. Not to sign him, of course. But to get him to lift the curse. He still feels bitter about Tampa Bay cutting him in 2009, so much so that he sacrificed his hamstring to kick a 57-yard field goal against the Bucs last month. If Tampa Bay sent some henchman to Bryant’s Atlanta-area residence, I would not be surprised if they found a voodoo altar stocked with spell candles, offering bowls, kicker dolls and photographs of former general manager Mark Dominick.
And if I’m an unemployed kicker, I might prefer to stay unemployed. If my phone rings and I see an 813 area code, I’m not answering for fear that it could be the kicker bogeyman. Or Jason Licht. Same thing. (UPDATE: Cairo Santos answered the phone anyway and will be the kicker this Sunday against the Giants. Say a prayer for him.)
The Bucs’ biggest mistake was not in signing Catanzaro. No, their biggest mistake was thinking that they could jump off the kicker carousel. That carousel is part of football. Kickers come, kickers go. You just have to tolerate the nausea.
Here’s the dirty, little secret about kickers: It doesn’t matter how many field goals they make. It doesn’t matter what percentage of field goals they make. It doesn’t matter how far they can kick the ball. Field goals are consolation prizes. They aren’t correlated to wins. Touchdowns are.
The solution then is to score more touchdowns. Do that, and you’ll forget you even had a kicker.
Offensive tackle Demar Dotson said it best Sunday: “The biggest thing is not getting seven. You’re down at the 5-, 7-, 9-yard line, and we’re kicking field goals. We’ve got to find a way to get seven.”
Mistakes vs. Washington: The Bucs wore them.
They’re ugly — always have been — and need to be thrown in the dumpster fire or on coach Dirk Koetter’s seat, whichever is hotter.
Problem: Defensive line
Mistakes vs. Washington: Only three sacks and six hits against a patchwork offensive line.
In the offseason, Licht spent tens of millions of dollars to rebuild the defensive line. Jason Pierre-Paul is getting $12.5 million. Vita Vea is getting $9 million. Vinny Curry is getting $6.5 million. Beau Allen is getting $5 million. Mitch Unrein is getting $3 million. No defensive line is eating up as much of a team’s salary cap as Tampa Bay’s.
Licht isn’t getting what he paid for.
That was clear throughout the game Sunday but abundantly so on a critical third down in the fourth quarter. Washington had reached the 6-yard line, and the Bucs, trailing 6-3, needed to come up with a stop to save the game — and the season. Alex Smith dropped back, surveyed the field, started to throw, decided not to throw, stepped up in the pocket, shuffled left, tied his shoes, double-knotted his laces, dropped back, surveyed the field again, set his feet and delivered a strike to Josh Doctson in the back of the end zone. Smith held onto the ball for nearly six seconds. The NFL average time to pass is about 2.5 seconds.
A good team, or an improving team, wins on that play. Washington’s offensive line was so banged up that it pulled three chubby dudes wearing maroon jerseys from Section 136 and asked them to fill in. Even then — when it needed to the most — Tampa Bay’s expensive pass rush couldn’t deliver.
That was the moment you knew: This isn’t working.
Meanwhile, up in Nashville, the Titans thumped the Patriots 34-10 and made GOAT Tom Brady look like a mere mortal. They’re 5-4. Four seasons ago, they finished 2-14, the same record as the Bucs.
The only real thing that has happened here is the passage of time.
• • •
• Koetter announced that Fitzpatrick, not Winston, will start again Sunday against the Giants in New Jersey.
“I just think he still gives us the best opportunity right now,” he said Monday.
• On the Bucs’ kicker situation, Koetter said the team is doing its “due diligence on a guy.” Tampa Bay recently worked out Sam Ficken and Cairo Santos.
• Koetter said Monday that his decision to take back play-calling duties from offensive coordinator Todd Monken was something he had been thinking about and was based in part on the matchup.
“In this game, I just felt like the type of game it was going to be based on Washington’s offense, I felt like we needed to try to control the clock a little bit more and give our defense a little bit of time, maybe less time on the field, that maybe we needed to try to run it a little bit more and use our (run-pass options) a little bit more.”
From a pass-run ratio standpoint, the offense didn’t look much different. Against Washington, the Bucs’ pass-run ratio was 64.2 percent to 35.8 percent. In their previous eight games, it was 65.2 percent to 34.8 percent.
On first downs in the first half, they called 13 pass plays and eight run plays, a slightly more pass-heavy ratio than in their previous eight games.
Tampa Bay did control the clock, but only in the first half. It had possession for about 20 minutes, and Washington had possession for about 10.
• Koetter said he didn’t have a great message for the team after the game. “We got beat, and we have to live with the consequences,” he said. “That’s life in the NFL, and we have to live with it.”
That response, as well as Koetter’s occasional public admissions that he doesn’t have answers for the team’s struggles, might irritate some fans, and understandably so. He is paid to find the answers. At the same time, would you prefer that he pretend? Rip his players?
• Unless the Bucs win all seven of their remaining games, it’s hard to see Koetter returning in 2019, so let the speculation about the next coach begin. Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh? Ravens coach John Harbaugh? Former Cardinals coach Bruce Arians? Vikings offensive coordinator John DeFilippo? Cowboys defensive backs coach Kris Richard? Titans offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur? Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley?
• Licht’s track record in free agency is full of misses. Among them: Michael Johnson, Anthony Collins, J.R. Sweezy, Chris Baker and T.J. Ward. This offseason’s class — Beau Allen, Mitch Unrein, Ryan Jensen and Vinny Curry — hasn’t impressed yet, either.
• How much faith do you have in ownership’s decision-making? How much faith do the Glazers have in themselves?
• • •
What I got right
That the injuries along Washington’s offensive line would not be a game-changing advantage for Tampa Bay. It generated pressure on only a quarter of Smith’s dropbacks.
What I got wrong
I predicted before that season that the Bucs would go 7-9. That’s not out of the question, especially with the Giants (1-7) and 49ers (2-7) on tap, but to do so, they’ll have to win four of their last seven games.
• • •
Contact Thomas Bassinger at [email protected] Follow @tometrics.