Third down and still-a-chance, and this is what they come up with?
It was late in the first half, and the Saints had been amassing yardage like the second Louisiana Purchase. On the other hand, New Orleans had pretty much left the end zone undisturbed, and incredibly, the Bucs were still within range of making things interesting in the game and in the division race.
The Saints held a 14-0 lead, but the Bucs had a third and 4 at the New Orleans 23 with less than two minutes to play, and all things seemed possible.
Even, as it turns out, the wildcat.
On the list of detestable play calls you have seen, this one deserves to be near the top. It was the key down of the half, perhaps of the game, and the best option the Bucs had was to take their best player, Josh Freeman, out of the game and put in Josh Johnson, who hadn't carried the ball in a month?
Johnson needed 4 yards. He got 3 feet.
Of all the awful images of the Bucs offense on Sunday, this is the one that will not go away. The Bucs could not overpower the Saints, and they could not outrun them, and when it got down to it, they could not outtrick them. With first place in the division on the line, the ghost of Sam Wyche snuck back into the playbook.
By the end, it was 27-16, Saints, and it felt worse than that. The Saints looked bold and dangerous. The Bucs looked slow and conservative. And, once again, it looked as if there were missing pages in the Bucs game plan.
How does a team go eight straight games without scoring a touchdown in the first quarter? How does it continue to make rocks-in-the-skull penalties? How does it gain 67 yards in one drive and still punt?
At this point, with three losses in its past four games, it is time that everything is re-evaluated. From the construction of the roster to the design of a game plan. From the reputations of the players to the instruction of the coaches. From the discipline of the team to the direction of the franchise. No, it isn't out of bounds to question the playcalling, too.
"It didn't work, so it was a bad idea," Bucs coach Raheem Morris said. "If it had worked, it would have been great."
That's a familiar response for coaches, the get-out-of-jail-free card of bad calls. But it isn't a real answer. While it is true that people rarely question a successful play, that doesn't excuse all failed ones. You can apply that logic to the worst of plays, including giving the ball to a guard on a double-reverse. Hey, you would have loved it if it worked. I've said this before, but most of us could make calls that don't work; coaches are paid to make ones that do.
The truth of it is this: The Bucs needed desperately to make a play, and they pulled Josh Franchise off of the field before doing it. No one should suggest that Freeman was great Sunday — he wasn't — but he still leads the Bucs in playmaking possibilities.
Here's a thought: Of the top 15 quarterbacks in the league, how many of their teams would pull them off the field in a get-back-into-the-game series? Of course not. The Bucs don't run the wildcat well enough, or often enough, to break it out for a play this big. (Johnson has run twice this year, once for 2 yards, once for 8).
"We just didn't execute it," offensive coordinator Greg Olson said. "We had practiced it all week. We want to get Josh Johnson more involved with our offense."
Oh, there were other plays to make you raise your eyebrows. Freeman's quarterback draw at the Saints 7 for no gain. The dink-and-dunk passes short of the goal line. The three series that stalled and turned into field goals. The fourth-and-1 play where LeGarrette Blount was stunted. The reluctance to try more passes into the end zone. And, of course, the constant penalties that seem to turn drives into a quest for 140 yards or more.
It would be nice to see the Bucs offense play with the aggressiveness of the Saints. Granted, New Orleans has better weapons. But consider this: On the official play-by-play book of the game, there are 40 passes listed (including penalties) by Freeman. Of those, the word "short" is used as a description 37 times. It's like trying to win a sword fight with a twin-blade razor.
Is it all the playcalling? Of course not. Is it all the players? Same answer. But when the production does not match the potential, it is safe to assume the blame can be shared.
"We have to score more touchdowns," Olson said. "We missed opportunities (Sunday). We have to take more advantage."
That call sounds right.
If the Bucs are going to move back into the race, they need to hit on a few more.