On Sunday, the Buccaneers and Dolphins played one of those football games that gets only an obligatory mention at the end of highlight shows. In that spirit, this week’s Turning Point will focus mostly on the final three minutes of Tampa Bay’s 30-20 win.
In the first half, smokin’ Jay Cutler didn’t really care who was catching his passes. Sometimes, it was Dolphins receiver Jarvis Landry. Other times, it was Bucs defenders. Thanks in part to three Cutler interceptions, Tampa Bay scored 20 points in the first half. It had scored 19 in the first halves of its previous six games combined.
In the second half, the Bucs went into Don’t Screw This Up mode, which consists of short Doug Martin runs and short Ryan Fitzpatrick passes. One might question why they would change things up, but the Dolphins figured out their “intercept Cutler” game plan. Cutler stayed in the locker room at halftime to be evaluated for a concussion and did not return.
Don’t Screw This Up mode also is an entirely defensible strategy if you know anything about the Bucs. No NFL franchise loses as spectacularly. Not even the Browns. Cite their consecutive seasons of 0-10 starts all you want. It’s been done before. By the Bucs. Forty years ago. In 1976 and 1977.
The Bucs nearly screwed up Don’t Screw This Up mode. On their first four possessions of the second half, they gained 25 yards on 17 plays. After the fourth possession resulted in a net gain of 4 yards, Fox analyst Mark Schlereth remarked, “How many times can you put your defense out there and say, ‘Hey, bail us out again. Bail us out again. One more time. Bail us out.’?”
Schlereth’s a psychic. On the Dolphins’ next possession, quarterback Matt Moore hit Kenny Stills for a 61-yard touchdown that tied the game at 20 with about three minutes left. An offense doesn’t gain that many yards on a play unless someone blows a coverage, and that’s what happened. Stills acted as if he was going to run a crossing route over the middle. Safety Justin Evans bit on the move, and then Stills broke toward the sideline, leaving a stumbling Evans behind.
Before the drive, Tampa Bay had an 85 percent chance of winning. Stills’ score dropped it to 45 percent.
To the battle-tested Bucs fan, this was no surprise. Last month against Buffalo, Tampa Bay saw a 27-20 fourth-quarter lead disappear almost instantly when Tyrod Taylor threw a 44-yard pass to Deonte Thompson. Blowouts and blown leads are routine events around here. During the summer, we have late afternoon thunderstorms. During the fall, we have late afternoon clouds of doom.
As it turns out, all this team needed was a timely dose of Fitzmagic 7.0. How else can you explain a sputtering offense suddenly surging to life?
On the Bucs’ next possession, Fitzpatrick went right after the Dolphins defense, attacking the seams of its defense (seams are the empty spaces in a defense between zones).
On the first play, Mike Evans, who lined up in the slot, ran a skinny post past the linebacker and in front of the safety. Fitzpatrick delivered a strike for a 17-yard gain. The Bucs picked up 29 yards on a similar play late in the second quarter.
Of course Fitzpatrick would target Evans in that situation. He’s the veteran. He’s proven. But on two of the next four plays, he targeted someone he hadn’t targeted all game — rookie Chris Godwin. Godwin caught both passes, one for 14 yards and one for 24 yards. The 24-yarder was the game-changer.
Like Evans four plays earlier, Godwin ran a skinny post in front of the safety. Fitzpatrick’s passes Sunday didn’t have a whole lot of zip, but quarterbacks don’t get points for style. They get points for execution. And Fitzpatrick’s pass to Godwin was perfectly placed.
Fitzpatrick was efficient between the numbers all afternoon, completing 14 of 19 passes for 169 yards. The completion to Godwin, of course, was the most important of them all, as it improved the Bucs’ win probability from 63 percent to 84 percent and put them comfortably in kicker Patrick Murray’s field-goal range.
After three Martin runs that basically amounted to the Bucs running in place, Murray mercifully spared us from having to witness an overtime period by nailing a 35-yard field goal. Times columnist Martin Fennelly calls him Patrick Money. That works. Start printing the T-shirts.
What it means
A few weeks ago, the Bucs were in the midst of an identity crisis. Ten games into the season, we know who they are. They’re a team that beats really, really bad teams but not anyone else. Their four wins have come against teams that are a combined 13-27. Their six losses have come against teams that are a combined 33-20.
The Bucs are now 2-0 when Fitzpatrick starts. That doesn’t mean he is a better quarterback than Jameis Winston. What it shows, however, is that leadership takes different forms.
Tampa Bay didn’t need a hype speech Sunday. It didn’t need over-the-top emotion. It didn’t need pats on the back. And it definitely didn’t need its quarterback to ram his finger into an opposing player’s helmet.
Note how Bucs players talk about Fitzpatrick. He’s cool. He doesn’t get rattled. He doesn’t get too high. He doesn’t get too low.
Leadership can be loud and boisterous, but it doesn’t have to be. It can be calm and quiet, too.
Contact Thomas Bassinger at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @tometrics.