Week 5. Monday Night Football.
The Bucs and Panthers were serving viewers a nauseating cocktail of punts, missed field goals and turnovers.
Dirk Koetter, 1-3 in his first four games as Tampa Bay's head coach, desperately needed to leave Carolina with a win. He wasn't just trying to save a season; he was trying to fix a losing culture. Losing cultures can be hard to change if you're not, you know, winning.
All the while, Koetter was working around deficiencies in his roster. He couldn't trust his depleted defense. He couldn't trust his rookie kicker. He couldn't trust his quarterback, not even against a vulnerable Panthers secondary. Jameis Winston, the present and the future, was turning the ball over at a Vinny Testaverde-like pace.
So he turned to … his running back. No, not Doug Martin. He was unavailable because of a hamstring injury. He turned to Jacquizz Rodgers, a zombie who had been roaming the set of The Walking Dead a month earlier.
Rodgers came alive, grinding out 101 yards on 30 carries, both of which were career highs. He touched the ball five times on the final drive and helped set up a short-range field goal. Crisis averted. Season saved.
Fast forward to Sunday in Tampa. Bucs-Panthers II. We didn't ask for the sequel, but we got it anyway. Kind of like Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2. No purpose. While we were spared Kevin James, we were subjected to another noxious blend of punts, missed field goals and turnovers.
When the Bucs got the ball with about six minutes left and the game tied at 10, you figured they might turn to Rodgers again. Because Winston and the pass offense had been inconsistent all afternoon, Tampa Bay instead would work the clock, kick a field goal and leave the rest to the defense.
This time, the Bucs didn't put the game in Rodgers' hands. They didn't play clock ball, either.
They passed. And they passed. And they passed, passed, passed, passed.
Even when they were assured a chance at a chip-shot field goal.
Koetter wanted to win, of course, but consider that the stakes were vastly different from Week 5. At 1-3, winning was the only goal. At 8-7 — and the team's playoff hopes all but extinguished — he could strive for more than some modicum of momentum magic.
The most obvious beneficiary: Winston, who was approaching two single-season team records — touchdown passes and passing yards.
The pass-heavy drive, capped by Mike Evans' go-ahead score, ensured Winston set both.
Bucs single-season touchdown pass leaders
Bucs single-season passing yards leaders
Only Koetter knows how much those milestones factored into his play-calling in Carolina territory Sunday. Of the 13 plays the Bucs called at or inside the Panthers' 30-yard line, 10 were pass plays.
"The way our offense was today, any touchdown would've been fantastic," he said.
The drive also served a purpose greater than building Winston's reputation. It represented an opportunity to trust and to build trust. That will carry over to September more than a ninth win.
There is no relationship more integral to a team's success than the one between the head coach and the quarterback. Koetter knows he needs Winston, and Winston needs him. Winston, after all, is the reason the Bucs brought him to Tampa in 2015, as well as the reason the Bucs didn't let him walk a year ago.
Koetter placed the game in Winston's hands despite his early struggles because, in a way, he had to. And by doing so, he delivered a message.
Be the franchise quarterback. Take over the game. Win.
Contact Thomas Bassinger at [email protected] Follow @tometrics.