TAMPA — Feels like trouble over at One Buc Place.
Not the trouble that gets a coach fired or a quarterback replaced. Not the trouble that requires ripping up the team and starting over.
But the kind of trouble that eventually leads to firings and replacements and new blueprints if things don't get straightened out.
Just a month ago, the Bucs had won four in a row. We were talking playoffs. We were talking about Greg Schiano's skilled leadership as a rookie coach. And someone — okay, that would be me — even mentioned something about giving quarterback Josh Freeman a $100 million contract extension.
Now we're talking about a four-game losing streak. We're talking about the possibility of another losing season. We're wondering if Schiano has lost control of his locker room, as well as his sidelines. And most would rather stuff that $100 million in a suitcase and toss it off the Howard Frankland before giving a single penny to Freeman.
This Bucs season has turned into one of those cartoons where the train is headed toward a track that ends on the middle of a bridge.
The trouble can be seen through the three R's:
Halfway through this four-game losing streak, the Bucs were 6-6, but it was a "good" 6-6. They had some last-second losses, they let a couple of games get away, they had a comeback or two fall a bit short. But, all in all, the Bucs were in every game.
Then came Dec. 9 when the Bucs lost to an Eagles team that had lost eight in a row, a team that was playing a backup rookie quarterback and an organization that can't wait to get to the end of the season so they can start firing people.
The Bucs followed that up with Sunday's 41-0 clunker in New Orleans. Clunker is a good word. It was Schiano's.
"Well, I think our team is disappointed in what we did (Sunday)," Schiano said. "We go out and throw our first clunker. We've been together now for 11 months and we threw a clunker. Now, the sky is not falling."
Maybe not. But you can see a few cracks.
Normally, you don't make too much out of a disagreement on an NFL sideline, even if it turns physical. We've seen teammates go at it in baseball dugouts and on hockey benches and in football — in huddles, at practice, on the sidelines. That's why, at first take, you shouldn't blow Sunday's shoving match between assistant coach Bryan Cox and linebacker Adam Hayward out of proportion. It's tackle football. Tensions are high.
Also, you normally don't make too much out of an anonymous quote like the one that came out Monday on profootballtalk.com. An unidentified Bucs player supposedly said, "Can we send these coaches back to college?"
Without a name to attach to the quote, we have no clue as to if we're talking about a meaningful player, a player with an ax to grind or, quite frankly, if the player is even real.
Rub these two incidents together and maybe you don't have a fire, but you certainly have a little smoke.
Ultimately, a coach and a player pushing on a sideline just cannot happen, not if you have an environment of respect. And the college crack, if it really did happen, was a direct slap at Schiano. Even if no one said such a thing, the feeling always has been that Schiano's college ways would work as long as the team was winning, but could present a problem if the season started heading south.
"The reality is I don't sense any of that," Schiano said Monday. "I feel like we got a group of men in that locker room who are together."
For the record, Freeman called the team "unified."
You hate to bring up last year's 4-12 debacle, but it can't be helped. The Bucs started just fine at 4-2, then the season crumbled. Ten straight losses, including a suggestion that the players stopped playing at the end. If you go back, it's hard to find more than one or two wins against decent opponents.
Now it's 2012 and here comes another losing streak, here come a couple of bad losses and you really can't find more than one, maybe, really good win. The eye test suggests that the 2012 Bucs are way better than the 2011 Bucs, but the two seasons, especially of late, are looking just a tad too familiar.
That leaves one R.
It's not too late to fix this thing.
"We dropped the ball," Freeman said Monday. "But it's how do we respond to adversity?"
A victory Sunday against the Rams would be a good start, and a solid season finale against the Falcons would go a long way to giving hope for next season and restoring a bit of the confidence that has been lost in the past month.
"We just need to do a better job of teaching and they need to do a better job of doing and we need to end this thing the right way," Schiano said.
Then he smiled and repeated it:
"End this thing the right way."
Schiano has two games to end this the right way. Or else there could be big trouble.