TAMPA — Three months ago, to the day, the Buccaneers were the talk of the NFL.
No one gave them a chance against the Saints. They were double-digit underdogs. And rightly so. They were starting their backup quarterback on the road against a Super Bowl contender.
But then Ryan Fitzpatrick played the game of his life. He threw for 417 yards and scored five touchdowns. DeSean Jackson caught five passes, gained 146 yards and scored two touchdowns.
How’d they do it? They played to win, not to not lose. They looked fearless and defiant.
In Sunday’s 28-14 loss, a loss that effectively ended their season, they looked shaken and confused. Jameis Winston, who had been sharp in recent wins over the 49ers and Panthers, alternated between overthrowing receivers and running for his life.
Winston and the Bucs weren’t so much competing Sunday; they were trying to survive. They held up for a little while, jumping out to a 14-3 lead before the end of the first half. In the second half, the dam broke, and New Orleans didn’t relent.
NFL coaches tend to be a conservative lot and have been known to justify bad decisions by saying horrible things like, “Take the points.” Saints coach Sean Payton, though, wasn’t content to play it safe Sunday.
After a touchdown late in the third quarter cut Tampa Bay’s lead to 14-9, Payton chose to keep his offense on the field and attempt a two-point conversion. Coaches usually wait until the fourth quarter to go for two, but Payton liked his chances given that New Orleans had called only one other play inside the 5-yard line to that point.
“We really hadn’t utilized a lot of calls that maybe we would have,” Payton said. “Obviously, if you like a play down there as a two-point play, certainly you would like it when you’re inside the five.”
“And I liked that Alvin (Kamara) had the ball.”
Kamara’s run to the left end succeeded, pulling the Saints to within a field goal, but what if it hadn’t? It wouldn’t have made much of a difference. New Orleans would have needed a touchdown to take the lead, just as they would have if they had kicked the extra point. Was it an aggressive decision? Maybe, considering the timing. But it was the right decision. Getting two points instead of one in that situation increases a team’s chances of winning.
Four minutes into the fourth quarter, Payton made another aggressive call — at least by conventional standards — and passed up the opportunity to kick a game-tying field goal. On fourth down from the Tampa Bay 1, the Saints called the Michelle Obama Special. When the Bucs went low; Drew Brees went high, leaping over the defensive line for the touchdown.
Because New Orleans had converted the two-point conversion earlier, the touchdown and extra point put the Saints up 18-14. In a matter of minutes, Tampa Bay had gone from holding a commanding 11-point lead to needing a touchdown to save its season, a daunting task considering that the Bucs had been playing more conservatively than they had three months ago.
Entering Sunday, the New Orleans pass defense was one of the NFL’s most vulnerable on first down. Instead of exploiting that weakness, Tampa Bay committed to a run-pass balance. Over the first three quarters, Winston dropped back to pass on first down 13 times and handed off nine times. Bucs running backs gained 34 yards on those carries, an average of 3.7 yards. Winston’s passes averaged 4.5 yards — disappointing, to be sure, but no less efficient than the team’s run game.
It’s no coincidence that Winston faced 10 third-and-long situations (8 or more yards to go). And the Saints’ four sacks? Yep, they got three of them on third and long.
In the end, by playing not to lose, Tampa Bay lost anyway — the game and the season.
The loss not only dropped the Bucs to 5-8 but also underscored what has been clear for weeks: They haven’t gotten better since the start of their rebuild, which unofficially began in 2015 when they drafted Winston No. 1 overall. How could you argue otherwise? They have a worse record after 13 games than they did in 2015. Ask Lovie Smith how that ended.
The pass offense is better, but what else? Not the run offense. Not the pass defense. Not the run defense. Not the special teams. Once upon a time, you could count on Tampa Bay to at least punt well. Even that’s not a sure thing anymore.
Where do the Bucs go from here? Change is inevitable. Change also takes time. So we might as well get on with it.
It’s time to sit everyone who won’t be back in 2019. The DeSean Jackson signing made a lot of sense in 2017, but that experiment hasn’t worked. Any snaps that go to him will come at the expense of someone else. Same for Brent Grimes. He and Miko got their $7 million. Peace.
Start bringing players up from the practice squad. Find out what you have. Heck, I wouldn’t mind seeing an intern give it a go at right guard next week.
Wins don’t matter anymore; 6-10 or 7-9 isn’t saving any jobs.
What a fall. We didn’t realize it at the time, but it seems the Bucs peaked three months ago.
Meanwhile, the Saints are celebrating their second straight division championship.
NFL standings: Tampa Bay edition
The good news: The Bucs are back on track to land a top-10 pick in the 2019 NFL draft, and their chances of landing a top-five pick doubled. (Record and percent chance of landing a top-five pick in parentheses. Odds courtesy of Football Outsiders.)
1. 49ers (3-10, 94.2 percent)
2. Cardinals (3-10, 96.0 percent)
3. Raiders (3-10, 85.5 percent)
4. Falcons (4-9, 45.3 percent)
5. Jets (4-9, 66.8 percent)
6. Bills (4-9, 38.3 percent)
7. Jaguars (4-9, 17.9 percent)
8. Bucs (5-8, 20.8 percent)
9. Giants (5-8, 5.0 percent)
10. Lions (5-8, 15.1 percent)
• The offensive line remains one of the team’s greatest flaws. Whose fault is that? The general manager? The head coach? The offensive line coach? If I’m ownership, I’d want to know.
• Speaking of problems that haven’t gone away, the Bucs special teams continue to be below average, and I’m not just talking about the missed field goals and blocked punt Sunday. Special teams might not have as much influence on games as offense and defense, but the fact that we’ve seen little improvement and consistency from these units over the years is unsettling.
• The Saints gained only 3 rushing yards on nine carries in the first half. They gained 97 yards on 21 carries in the second half. The difference? Tackling. The Bucs didn’t miss any in the first half but missed several in the second.
• Bucs rookie running back Ronald Jones played four total snaps on offense. In a league where it’s not uncommon for rookie running backs to contribute right away, even if they went undrafted, Jones’ lack of snaps this deep into the season is troubling. Either Bucs scouts vastly overrated Jones or coaches have failed to develop him. It makes you wonder whether Tampa Bay committed to drafting a running back at No. 38 rather than the best player available.
• In the past, the Bucs could bemoan the difficulty of the playing in the NFC South. Not so this season. While the Saints are 11-2, the Panthers are 6-7 and the Falcons are 4-9.
• The Browns, who went 0-16 last season, have a better record than the Bucs. Inexcusable.
What I got right
I thought Tampa Bay would be in trouble if it didn’t force New Orleans to sustain long drives. On average, the Saints started their drives at their 35-yard line; the Bucs started their drives at their 29. New Orleans scored 20 of its 28 points on drives that started beyond the 35.
What I got wrong
Divisional rival. At home. I expected the Bucs to cover the 10-point spread. They lost by 14. The lesson: Don’t come to me for betting advice.
Contact Thomas Bassinger at email@example.com. Follow @tometrics.