TAMPA — By beating the Browns 26-23 Sunday, the Buccaneers snapped a three-game losing streak and Tampa Bay breathed a collective sigh of relief.
It wasn’t pretty, a misadventure full of interceptions, fumbles, penalties and missed kicks. And as if four quarters weren’t enough, we were subjected to an extra period, an extra period that never should have happened.
The Bucs had the Browns beaten early, but turnovers gave Cleveland life and a couple of sacks in overtime nearly completed a collapse. Ultimately, with the game on the line, coach Dirk Koetter had three options, none of which was likely to work in his favor.
What happened: The Bucs took a 14-point lead into the fourth quarter. For most teams, “14-point lead in the fourth quarter” means “let’s run the ball a few times, drain the clock and get to the handshakes and bro hugs.” For the Bucs, that means “let’s see how close we can come to losing this game.”
They came close all right, like a bowling ball hitting a pin without knocking it over. The Browns, who had reached the red zone twice in the first three quarters, reached it three times in the fourth quarter. The impossible didn’t seem possible, though, until Jabrill Peppers returned a Bucs punt to the Tampa Bay 16-yard line with about three minutes left in regulation. Seconds later, Baker Mayfield hit Jarvis Landry to tie the score at 23.
The Bucs got the ball back with 2:28 left, enough time to serve up a tidy Sportswriter Special — franchise quarterback leads a game-winning drive, beleaguered kicker redeems himself, defense responds to a coordinator shakeup, everyone forgets the ugly stuff because a win is a win.
What changed: Jameis Winston completed four passes for 49 yards to take the Bucs to the Cleveland 24. Koetter, despite having 45 seconds left and three timeouts, decided to position Tampa Bay for the field goal from roughly that distance rather than try to get in closer range.
The narratives about resilience and perseverance were neatly falling into place. All the Bucs needed was a 40-yard field goal by Chandler Catanzaro as time expired.
Aaaaand he missed it. Holy Roberto Aguayo, he missed it.
As the Bucs and Browns took turns trying to lose in overtime, it seemed as if we were headed for a tie, which would have been fitting because no one deserved to win. But with about three minutes left, Antony Auclair stripped the ball away from Peppers on a punt return and Isaiah Johnson, last seen running into a wall on Monday Night Football, recovered at the Cleveland 48 to give Tampa Bay one last chance.
For all of Winston’s issues with protecting the ball, it was what he didn’t do with the ball that nearly doomed the Bucs in overtime. He took back-to-back sacks that cost Tampa Bay 19 yards and turned a field goal from probable to doubtful, even after he gained a chunk of yards back with a third-down completion to DeSean Jackson.
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“I’m not sure exactly what happened, but there’s just no excuse for that,” Koetter said. “You absolutely cannot — we were already in field-goal range. We cannot take a sack there.”
On fourth and 15 from the Cleveland 41, Koetter had three options, and all of them were longshots. He could kick a 59-yard field goal, but his kicker had missed two kicks and was one of the reasons the team was in this predicament. Or he could leave his offense on the field and go for it, but Winston had turned the ball over three times. Or he could punt, but a punt would mean that the Bucs were playing for a tie.
Punting, though, really wasn’t a viable option. Given the urgency for Koetter to win now, a tie would have been a loss. Not technically, of course. But this was the Browns, whose No. 1 priority for the past couple of seasons has been acquiring talent, not winning games. The Bucs had a several years head-start on rebuilding, so a tie would have suggested that either Tampa Bay had stalled or Cleveland had caught up. That’s not a bullet point a coach can include on his resume.
Essentially, Koetter’s choice came down to this: Catanzaro or Winston?
He chose Catanzaro.
And it worked.
What it means: Conventional wisdom says that you put the ball in your best players’ hands and let them decide the game.
In this scenario, you’d think that the best player is Winston. He’s the franchise quarterback, supposedly, and has a number of reliable pass targets — Mike Evans, DeSean Jackson, Chris Godwin, Adam Humphries, O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate.
Yet Koetter chose his kicker. He can talk about the confidence he has in Catanzaro because he makes 61-yard kicks during practice, but can you imagine Mike Holmgren asking Ryan Longwell to win the game and not Brett Favre?
You might be wondering: Didn’t Dan Quinn do that last week in the Falcons’ win over the Bucs when he had Matt Bryant kick a late 57-yard field goal on fourth and 2? Did he choose his kicker over his quarterback? There are a couple of key differences between Quinn’s and Koetter’s decisions. 1.) Quinn already had a lead; Koetter did not. 2.) Bryant, the Falcons’ kicker since 2009, hadn’t missed a field goal all season and had made 11 of his past 12 tries from 50 or more yards away. Catanzaro, the Bucs’ kicker since September, is not Bryant. Considering his misses Sunday, it would have been hard to blame Koetter if he had kept his offense on the field.
Koetter and Winston have been working together for four years. Koetter knows what he has. And what he has is a good but volatile quarterback, a quarterback that talks about taking care of the ball but hasn’t done it. Apologists can say Winston is only 24 and that he’ll be a star, but all that is is projection. That’s not what he is right now.
On Sunday, the coach trusted an inconsistent kicker more than his inconsistent quarterback.
• Winston made up for some of his shaky passing performance with legs. He led the Bucs in rushing yards, with a career-high 55. Excluding a kneel down at the end of the first half, he rushed nine times and gained a first down or scored a touchdown on five of those carries.
• The Bucs came into the game allowing an NFL-high 34.6 points per game but held the Browns to 23 points. Was the change at defensive coordinator to Mark Duffner the difference? Doubtful. The Browns came into the game with one of the league’s least efficient offenses, including the second-worst pass offense, according to Football Outsiders’ rankings.
The Bengals, the Bucs’ next opponent, will provide a better test. Featuring A.J. Green, Tyler Boyd and John Ross, Cincinnati’s passing attack is the ninth best, according to Football Outsiders.
• Those hoping for an increase in blitzes under Duffner were disappointed Sunday. The Bucs blitzed Baker Mayfield on 21.4 percent of his dropbacks, a rate consistent with former coordinator Mike Smith.
• While the Bucs recorded five sacks, they didn’t generate much heat on Mayfield as they pressured him on less than a quarter of his dropbacks.
• The key to the Bucs holding the Browns to only three third-down conversions out of 14 opportunities? Their defense on first and second downs. Cleveland faced 10 third downs of 6 or more yards to go.
• Linebackers Kwon Alexander and Jack Cichy suffered season-ending knee injuries. Alexander was on the verge of becoming a free agent and likely won’t land the contract he was seeking.
• Despite the injuries, the Bucs defense tightened up in overtime and prevented the Browns from gaining a first down on either of their drives.
What I got right
That the Browns’ blitz wouldn’t rattle Winston. He had a higher quarterback rating when blitzed (79.9) compared with when he wasn’t blitzed (61.2). Unfortunately for Tampa Bay, Cleveland blitzed Winston less often than they usually blitz other quarterbacks.
What I got wrong
As the Bucs lined up for the 59-yard field goal, I turned to my editor and wondered what Koetter was thinking. I didn’t think Catanzaro had a chance. “The way that game was going,” Koetter said, “we were going for the win. But I knew he could make it if he hit it.”
My tweet after Catanzaro missed the field goal at the end of regulation:
Good thing he stuck around.
Statistics in this report are from Football Outsiders, Pro Football Focus and Pro Football Reference. Contact Thomas Bassinger at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @tometrics.