ATLANTA — One by one, Bucs players made their way down the tunnel to the locker room, limping — figuratively and literally —- after a 34-20 loss to the Falcons on Sunday.
Eyes down. Some heads shaking. All mouths closed.
"Another road loss. Another division loss. Another loss period," defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said. "It isn’t what we really expected."
It isn’t what anyone expected. Not after the high hopes of last season’s 9-7 record. Not after predictions of a postseason appearance. Not after HBO’s Hard Knocks made them this year’s cool kids of the NFL.
The sad part is, this is no fluke. This isn’t a hard-luck team that can’t catch a break. The Bucs are 4-7. Exactly where they deserve to be. They look like a 4-7 team.
What do they do well, other than beat the precious few teams in the NFL who are worse than they are?
They can’t run the ball. They can’t rush the quarterback. Opposing quarterbacks not named Mike Glennon, Josh McCown or Jay Cutler chew them up and spit them out.
They can’t pick up a stinkin’ yard when a game depends on it.
"This one hurts," quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick said.
As players like McCoy trudged their way into the locker room late Sunday afternoon, you had the sense this season can’t end fast enough now. Everything about it has been bad, out of whack. It just feels off.
Blowout losses. Close losses. Now injuries are piling up. And the whole Jameis Winston-Uber mess. It adds up to one lost season.
"I wish I had an answer," Bucs tight end O.J. Howard said.
He’s not alone. Sunday’s post-game featured a lot of shoulder shrugs and I-don’t-knows. The Bucs tried to hang their helmets on a gallant comeback from a 27-6 deficit, but who cares about ALMOST winning. Know who does that? Teams that lose.
Bottom line, this whole season smells. Even if the Bucs win their remaining five games, they can’t better last year’s 9-7 mark — and they aren’t winning their last five.
Name a more disappointing team in the NFL. Denver, maybe? The Giants? That’s about it.
"Right now, I tend it to look at it as week to week," Bucs coach Dirk Koetter said. "I’m really disappointed in today. As far as evaluating the season, we do that at the end. We didn’t get it done today and they’re not cancelling the rest of the season because we’re not going to have a better record."
Wouldn’t it be nice to hit the fast-forward button and skip ahead to next season?
"We’ve got to keep playing," Koetter said. "We have to figure out what we’re going to do next week in Green Bay."
Well, since the NFL is going to make Tampa Bay play out the rest of the season, exactly what is at stake for a team that is not headed to the playoffs?
For starters, jobs are on the line. How the Bucs play the rest of the season will determine the future of Koetter and general manager Jason Licht. If this team ends the season on a six-game losing streak, it’s hard to imagine either coming back. But if they win a couple and play competitive football, both have a decent chance to return.
The Glazers are known for firing coaches too often. If they want to shake that reputation Koetter and Licht will get the benefit of the doubt if the Bucs show any fight down the stretch.
Then again, if Winston gets in serious trouble with the NFL over this Uber thing, Licht might pay for being the guy who, ultimately, made the call to draft Winston.
Speaking of Winston, does he play again this season? And if he does, how will he look? You would assume Winston remains in the long-term plans for the Bucs, but he needs to show a little something to prove he’s a guy the Bucs should continue to build around.
The point is, there are still something left to play for this season.
It’s just not what the Bucs had hoped for or expected.
And Sunday was just another rotten reminder of that.
Contact Tom Jones at [email protected] Follow @tomwjones.