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Bad time for Tampa Bay Buccaneers to simply play it safe

TAMPA

They lost to the Lions?

Really?

With everything to play for, with a winning season in their grasp, with homefield advantage and literally tens of people in the stands, they lost to the Lions. No one loses to the Lions, the Duke football of the NFC. Certainly, they don't lose at home. The Lions hadn't won a road game in their past 26 tries, after all.

They lost to Drew Stanton?

Honestly?

With LeGarrette Blount churning for 7.3 yards per carry, and with Mike Williams catching almost 100 yards worth of passes and with Josh Freeman finishing with a 99.9 rating, they lost? For crying out loud, the Bucs never lose to a nobody. If you can count on one thing with the Bucs, it's that they never beat a winning team. And if you can count on another, it's that they never lose to a losing team.

They lost to Detroit?

Are you kidding me?

How does this happen? How does a nice little improving football team like the Bucs trip over the Lions? How does a team get lost against the most misguided franchise in the league? It's like losing at Jeopardy to Homer Simpson or losing a beauty contest to Amy Winehouse. On a miserable day, the Bucs lost to a miserable team in the most miserable way possible.

To tell the truth, this one might linger for a while.

How did the Bucs lose a 23-20 overtime game to the Lions? How much time do you have?

They lost because they turned conservative at the go-for-the-throat moment.

They lost because the starting lineup has been stripped for parts.

They lost because they had no idea how to stop Calvin Johnson and no clue of how to slow down a running game and because they lost the coin flip in overtime. They lost because they turned first and goal at the 1-yard line into a field goal, and because they could not overcome close calls and because the pass rush still is more of a concept than a reality. They lost because they had too many penalties, and because they didn't force errors and because the Lions holder didn't let any of them slip through his fingers.

Win this game, and the Bucs would have been in terrific position for the playoffs. They would have tripled their victories from a year ago. They would be within one game of coach Raheem Morris' race to 10.

Instead, they let a win slip away. Put it this way: If the Bucs fail to reach the postseason, this will be the game that will wake them up with flashbacks in the offseason. Sometime in May, maybe June, Morris will bolt upright in the night and scream, "What was I thinking on that offensive series, for crying out loud?"

For all the things that went wrong Sunday on Be Kind to Drew Stanton Day, this is the one that should cause the most discussion.

Go back to the two-minute warning, when the Bucs were simply not bold enough to win. They had first and 10 on the Lions 15 with the score tied at 17. Across the league, this is known as the time to step on the Lions' necks. Any minute now, you could expect the Lions to pull their jersey collars down out of habit.

And the Bucs went into safe mode. They might as well have put red tape across their huddle.

On first down, Cadillac Williams ran for a yard. On second down, Williams ran for 2 yards. On third and 7, Freeman ran a quarterback draw for 4.

Huh? Huh? And … wait for it … huh?

By now, of course, the Bucs are still competing with opponents because of their young trio of stars — Freeman, Blount and Mike Williams. Frankly, those guys were the only reasons the Bucs were still in the argument in the final seconds against the Lions (or anyone else, for that matter). And on three chances to go for the throat, Freeman didn't throw it, Williams didn't catch it, and Blount didn't run it. And in the 19 plays that remained in the game, the Bucs offense never touched the ball again.

I cannot tell you how much I hated that series. Yes, I understand what Morris was trying to do. He was trying to take away the Lions' timeouts, which he did. But for that to work, he had to turn the game over to his defense, which had been moving in reverse for much of the day.

Given what is left of the Bucs defense — it has players Mel Kiper hasn't even heard of — it's hard to be overly harsh in any criticism.

But to turn the game over to a defense that doesn't have Aqib Talib or Gerald McCoy or Brian Price or Quincy Black or Cody Grimm or Tanard Jackson or Kyle Moore seems like a lot to ask. And it was up to Morris, who doubles as defensive coordinator, to know it.

How about one throw into the end zone? How about another as deep as the first-down sticks. At that point, the Bucs needed someone to make a play. Just asking here, but who was more likely to make one? Freeman, Blount and Williams? Or Okam, Woods and Magee?

Granted, you can use Sunday's game to rekindle the discussion over whether overtime is unfair when one team doesn't get the ball. You can talk about pass-interference calls going this way or that. You can talk about how much better the Bucs might have been if Talib had been healthy enough to try to slow down Johnson or if McCoy was spry enough to try to plug the holes in the middle.

Those, however, are things you cannot control. Calling plays is different.

George Young, a former New York Giants general manager, used to refer to NFL football as a game of attrition.

It's hard to argue that backups are as good as starters and that their backups are as good as second-teamers, and that warm bodies picked over from other teams' leftovers are as good as any of them. In some ways, the bill is simply coming due for the Bucs.

That said, the Bucs were in position to win this game. And that was the Lions on the other side.

And the Bucs lost.

How did it happen?

Because they were not good enough to win it. Not bold enough, either.

Gary Shelton can be reached at shelton@sptimes.com.

Bad time for Tampa Bay Buccaneers to simply play it safe 12/19/10 [Last modified: Monday, December 20, 2010 9:12am]

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