TAMPA — On a franchise running in place, they have always been the last great hope. On a team filled with flaws, they have always been the final reason to believe. No matter what else was going on — the struggles on offense or the troubles on special teams or the friction in the front office — they were the players you trusted. For a dozen years, it has been that way. No matter what else went wrong, the defenders of the Tampa Bay Bucs could be counted on to make most of it right.
More than anything, that is what makes the current nosedive of the Bucs so difficult to watch.
Suddenly, the defense is awful.
There is no other way to say it, and there is no reasonable way to explain it. They cannot tackle, and they cannot rush, and on most plays, they are so far away from the quarterback it is a long-distance phone call.
For all of December, the Bucs defense has looked like imposters. They no longer look smarter than other teams, and they no longer look faster, and most of all, they no longer look like a defense that can be counted on when the game — and the season — is at its most crucial point.
It is like watching fish that have forgotten how to swim. Just like that, they are ordinary, if that. They are making the beep-beep sound of a golf cart backing up. They look as if Keith McCants has made a comeback and brought Eric Curry and Rod Jones with him.
No, this is not a playoff team.
And no, this is not a playoff defense.
Time was, the Bucs looked like both, and the largest reason of all was the defense. As usual. Three weeks ago, the Bucs were 9-3, and from there, the playoffs looked like a short putt. The Bucs had the fourth-best defense in the league then, and because of it, Tampa Bay had the look of a team that could do something in the playoffs.
Then, the familiar wall collapsed.
In the last three weeks, the Bucs have given up 1,207 yards, 92 points and a third-down conversion rate of 57 percent. In the meantime, the team's playoff hopes have fallen like a bad mountain climber. Let the accountants break down the playoff possibilities. The truth of it is the playoffs are not for the Bucs, and if they are, they are not for long.
Overnight, the players on this defense look like strangers. Carolina chewed them alive on the ground. Atlanta won most of the big plays. And San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers had such an easy time, you wanted to count to make sure the Bucs were playing enough defensive backs.
So what has happened?
Have good opponents happened? Sure. But guess what? The NFL is filled with good opponents. That doesn't excuse a team driving into the ditch three weeks in a row.
Is it residue from Monte Kiffin's announcement that he is headed to the University of Tennessee? For all the player protests to the contrary, publicly at least, it's a fair question to ask.
After all, the rumors of Kiffin's departure went from rumor to fact over the last few weeks and since then, they have not been the same. Is that coincidence? Hey, I believe Kiffin when he says he's focused on this team, but doesn't it have to have some effect? Don't you believe the players are asking each other the same questions?
"No, no way," Kiffin said. "I'm totally focused on Tampa Bay. I'm not going to let these players down."
I don't doubt it. I'm sure Kiffin is working as hard as ever. But the dynamic has changed. Kiffin now has a once-and-future team, and that can have an effect on how he sees his job and how his employers see him.
Is it a horrible pass rush that has finally caught up to the Bucs? Yeah, that's another possibility. This is not a great pass-rushing defensive line, and against Rivers, they barely bothered to blitz. Rivers, delighted by the comfort, picked apart the Bucs.
Odd sight, watching a team stripped of its identity. The players who swear that if the Bucs get into the playoffs, the defense you saw for three months will return.
But will it? How much bigger would an opening-round playoff game be than the game at Carolina, or the game at Atlanta, or Sunday's game against the Chargers? And if the defense isn't delivering now, why should you believe it will show up then?
And here's the big question: If you can no longer believe in this defense, who are you going to trust?