Two days before the Bucs faced the Eagles at Raymond James Stadium, John Lynch stood at the end of a practice field at One Buc Place and was startled to see the team walking through plays in only shorts and jerseys.
Lynch served as the television analyst for several Tampa Bay regular-season games as well as all of its preseason games. The former Bucs and Broncos Pro Bowl safety was aware of how tough workouts were under first-year coach Greg Schiano.
Had the coach, wound tighter than a Swiss watch, finally loosened up?
"Wow, he's really come around, huh? He's taken the load off these guys," Lynch said. "I was standing next to (a staff member) who said, 'Don't be fooled. If you saw what they did Wednesday and Thursday, he just killed them. He grinded them.' "
The Bucs lost that Dec. 9 game 23-21, part of their current five-game skid.
"It's a team that I think had a very demanding coach," Lynch said. "And I think they're out of gas both mentally and physically."
There is not a singular reason why the Bucs took a promising 6-4 start and rammed it into the rocks, falling to 6-9 heading into today's finale at Atlanta.
The carnival ride swings have taken a toll on the entire organization, starting with Schiano, who admits to being frustrated.
The Bucs blew an 11-point fourth-quarter lead against the Eagles. The next week, they were shellacked at New Orleans 41-0. Their fifth loss, 28-13 to the Rams, came last week, when Josh Freeman threw four interceptions.
Schiano disputes his team is running on fumes — physically at least.
"I think the number of reps we do are very, very selective," he said. "We've made an attempt to keep our guys fresh because I do know that is the key when you have talented guys over a long period of time. Some of them are older.
"But when you lose and you don't have that emotion because you've lost, that makes people emotionally tired. And when you're winning, as we were for four weeks straight, it emotionally energizes you. Winning cures all."
Why did the Bucs fold like origami? Let's examine two issues.
The Freeman factor
After 13 games this season, Freeman was among the top-10 rated passers in the NFL, boasting 25 touchdowns and only eight interceptions. But that was before throwing four interceptions against New Orleans and St. Louis.
Miscommunications between Freeman and his receivers led to several. A tipped ball here, a bad decision there, and you have a snowball effect.
"That's the one thing that's alarming to me. I'm a big believer in Josh, but the inconsistency is a concern," Lynch said. "I'm still a believer even if he doesn't finish well. I just think he's got everything you need, but I think it's a concern. It's nothing you want to be going into the offseason with a concern that the quarterback is really slumping."
Freeman has admitted he tried to force passes rather than go through his progressions. Regardless, he needs a good performance today for his confidence — whether the Falcons play their backups or not.
"I hope that he feels like, 'I'm going to go out and trust my training, and the results will take care of themselves,' " Schiano said. "I think it's so dangerous when you start thinking of all these result-oriented outcomes. If I win, then it's a better offseason. I hope his thoughts are, 'Okay, on this play, I've got to read top down.' But I can't tell you that. I can't get in there. You'd like to get in all the players' minds."
No matter what you say about the Bucs offense, the defense has been worse. If it allows 252 passing yards today, it will surpass the record of 4,796 set by the Packers last season.
The trade of Aqib Talib to New England and suspension of fellow cornerback Eric Wright played a role in the collapse. The Bucs also have been wafer thin on the line after the season-ending knee injury to end Adrian Clayborn.
"If you're going to play his aggressive style (of defense), you need some serious corners," Lynch said. "I also think Michael Bennett (nine sacks, two over the past five games) faded at the end of the year because he never played this many snaps in his career and he's a lighter guy."
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Even Schiano is at a loss to pinpoint reasons for the five straight losses.
"I think it's a cumulative effect of things, and I can't even tell you what those things are," Schiano said. "But without a doubt, it's been frustrating at times; especially since there's been opportunities to win games — very winnable games — and we didn't do it.
"That goes back to the head coach. It is my job when there are winnable games for us to win them, and we didn't do that."
Today: Bucs at Falcons
1 p.m., Georgia Dome, Atlanta.
TV/radio: Ch. 13; 620-AM, 103.5-FM
Playoff glance: Standings and clinching scenarios, 4C