Third and play-to-win, and the Bucs surrendered.
Third and step-on-their-necks, and the Bucs backed away.
Third and keep-the-playoffs-alive, and the Bucs played it safe.
What in the heck were they thinking?
For the Bucs, and for rookie coach Greg Schiano, these are the questions that will likely burn from now until the opening of next training camp. On third-and-survival, why would you play not to lose? On third-and-opportunity, why not call a play that would allow victory?
Forget about the lousy punt that followed. Forget about the leaky defense that could not slow a rookie quarterback playing on a lousy team. Forget about the dropped interception at the end.
This is where the avalanche began.
On third and brain-cramp.
At the time, the Bucs appeared to be on their way to nailing down a victory despite their ragged play against a dysfunctional Eagles team that was riding an eight-game losing streak. One more first down and the clock probably would have been inside the final minute when the Eagles got the ball back.
Instead, on third and 8, the Bucs gave the ball to Doug Martin, who was promptly tackled, oh, 8 yards from the first down.
Soon afterward, the Bucs lost.
Oh, how I hated this play call. I hated the mentality of it, and I hated the mind-set behind it, and I hated the odds of converting it. As for you, you probably hated the result that followed it.
To me, it is as simple as this: Were the Bucs' chances of winning better if they trusted the game to the world's worst pass defense, or better if they tried to throw the ball to Vincent Jackson, whom the Eagles couldn't cover with a field tarp? Yeah, yeah. I understand Schiano wanted to force Philadelphia to use its final timeout, but with almost three minutes to go, ball possession seemed a lot more important than stripping an opponent of a timeout.
"There are two ways to play it," Schiano said. "You can try to throw the ball. We decided to run the ball and make them use their timeout or let it tick. My thinking was that we can punt the ball away and if we get a stop, the game is over.
"We're on our side of the field. It's risk-reward. We can get a tipped pass."
True. On the other hand, you can also get a first down.
Think of it like this: The Bucs had 15 other third-down situations Sunday, and only twice — both times on third and 1, and the Bucs converted once — did they call a running play. Why? Because it's hard to run 8 yards on third down.
For crying out loud, if anyone should know how careless it is to put the game in the hands of the Bucs' cornerbacks, it's Schiano. He has seen them aflame all season long. Besides, rookie quarterback Nick Foles had just taken the Eagles 72 yards for a touchdown against the Bucs' defense. It shouldn't have surprised anyone to see him do it again.
On the day, Martin carried the ball 28 times, and only twice did he have a run of longer than 8 yards. One was a first-down play. One was a second.
So now you're going to ask him to break one.
"We thought we might pop one," Schiano said. "That's a feast-or-famine run."
Maybe. Still, you don't see a run on third and 8 very often, do you? You don't see Peyton Manning handing off in that situation. Or Drew Brees. Or Eli. Or almost any other quarterback you can name.
Yes, Freeman had a thoroughly rotten afternoon. That's true. But he played better in the third quarter and the first part of the fourth as the Bucs went from a 10-point deficit to an 11-point lead.
The odds of throwing to Jackson for a first down? I like them. The odds of throwing to Mike Williams? To Dallas Clark? The odds of Freeman taking off on a scramble to get the first down (he had done so earlier in the game)? I like all of those better. Heck, I like the odds of the Eagles' secondary blowing up before the Bucs had a chance.
But running up the middle? Giving the ball back to an opponent? Entrusting victory to these cornerbacks? No, thanks.
As a result, the Bucs have now lost three straight, and they will have to win out to finish with a winning record. The way I figure it, they have to win six of their next three to get into the postseason.
Soon, the conversation will change. Fans will wonder: What happened to the moment? Why isn't the offense as sharp? Why can't the defense make a play every now and then?
In the meantime, can someone please explain one more time the thinking behind third and huh?
Listen to Gary Shelton weekdays from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. on 98.7-FM the Fan.