Sunday, December 10, 2017
Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Tampa Bay Bucs still have plenty to play for this season

The Bucs' scramble to the playoffs is pretty much kaput.

If you wish, you can get out the schedules and a calculator and study the tiebreakers and come up with all the different scenarios it will take for the Bucs to squeeze into the last spot in the NFC.

"Okay, so if the Bucs win the rest of their games and Seattle loses twice and the Rams lose once and the Bears tie twice and the Redskins beat the Cowboys by 78 points and all the Vikings get frostbite, then the Bucs make the playoffs. Uh, I think.''

Let's face it, it's over.

But that doesn't mean the rest of the Bucs' season is meaningless. Quite the contrary. Here's a look at what else the Bucs are playing for:

A successful season

Success, even in today's win-now NFL, isn't always determined by championships or even playoff spots. When you're going in reverse, you have to slam on the breaks and shift back into first gear before you can even think about getting on the freeway to the postseason.

Much of this Bucs season has been about stopping, turning around and heading in the right direction again.

Right now, the Bucs sit at 6-7. Not too shabby. After all, this team lost 10 in a row to finish last season with a 4-12 record. Then again, how good does 6-7 look when they were once 6-4?

See, it's not about the end result, but how you get there.

If the Bucs finish with a 9-7 record, it will be considered a tremendous success. (That same 9-7 record got Jon Gruden fired in 2008 because Chucky's Bucs lost their final four and missed the playoffs.)

If someone had told you before this season that the Bucs would win seven or eight games, you probably would have taken that. But if the Bucs do end up going 8-8, it will mean they lost four of their last six. Are you okay with that? You think coach Greg Schiano would be okay with that? And losing five of their final six and finishing 7-9 would be an awfully bitter end to what was once a promising season.

This Bucs season has been strange. They had a three-game losing streak, a four-game win streak and now are on another three-game losing streak. They've beaten only one team that currently has a winning record but haven't lost any game by more than eight points.

The most recent loss — Sunday's last-play gut-punch to the hapless Eagles at home while trying to stay alive for the postseason — was as bad of a loss as the Bucs have had. Ever.

"We weren't the best we could be Sunday,'' Schiano said. "Forget who had more points, we weren't the best we could be. And the winning and losing is what we get judged by, and we lost. So not playing our best and losing the game … if you're not sick, then there's a problem.

That brings us to the next issue …

Greg Schiano's reputation

He arrived in town as a hard-nosed, steel-jawed, leather-throated disciplinarian and demanded "toes on the line.'' That works in training camp when guys are fighting for jobs and trying to impress the new boss. That works when you have a taste of success. That works when you're in the thick of the playoff pack.

But what happens when there's nothing left to play for other than pride and a paycheck? Will players be so quick to put those toes on the line or their heads in the crossfire?

We're about to find out.

"The one thing about this team,'' Schiano said, "I don't see anybody that's going to duck from blame.''

Could you say the same thing a year ago when Raheem Morris lost his job after his players let the season swirl down the drain? Will this season's Bucs do the same? Will they be hard to motivate as the season draws to a close?

"I hope not,'' Schiano said. "I hope that we got the right people in the building who strive to be the best that they can be. … If that's not the case and I figure it out — and I don't figure it out all the time — but if I figure it out, they won't be here.''

The future of the franchise

Here's the deal: This is still a team trying to find its way, and the final three games will have a lot to say about how far it has come and how far it has to go.

Quarterback Josh Freeman has to get better. At the very least, as offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan said Wednesday, he must get more consistent. Just like Freeman, the rest of the team has to learn how to play four good quarters instead of one or two. The defense has to figure out how to stop the forward pass.

The Bucs need to go into next season on an upswing.

"Consistency has been our issue, but any team that's growing and getting better, that's usually an issue,'' Schiano said. "If you're good enough and you have talent enough to do it some of the time, that's the bigger tease. … We just can't do it over and over and over again. And that's my job and that's our coaches' job to do it over and over and over again.''

That's where the rest of this season gets interesting.

"No matter what, you got to finish strong,'' linebacker Mason Foster said. "In the NFL, every game is a big game, no matter what the records are, no matter what the situation is.''

The situation is this: The Bucs have three games left, and the playoffs have just about faded from sight. But even if the playoffs are no longer a part of the picture, Foster is absolutely right:

Every game is a big game.

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