TAMPA — The Bucs say they are reloading. The Dolphins have announced they are rebuilding.
A performance like Friday’s 16-14 preseason win against Miami may have everyone reconsidering whether there really is much difference between two of the NFL’s low rung teams.
Rookie Matt Gay, who all but sealed his spot as the Bucs’ new starting kicker, proved to be one of the lone bright spots. Gay’s game-winning 48-yard field with six seconds remaining provided Tampa Bay with the winning points.
Third-string quarterback Ryan Griffin engineered a five-play, 45-yard drive in 28 seconds to set the stage for Gay's heroics.
The fifth-round draft pick already had the edge on returning kicker Cairo Santos thanks to his success in training camp. Friday night’s game revealed, for a night, that he also can kick under game-ending pressure.
"You can’t even put a price on it,'' Gay said of the game-winner. "It’s priceless to get that situation and feel comfortable before you go into the regular season and feel comfortable in that situation.''
But Gay’s success wasn’t quite enough to mask what otherwise was an uninspiring effort by both teams.
The Bucs almost lost when Jake Rudock threw a 8-yard pass to Patrick Laird with less than a minute to pull Miami to within 1. A successful two-point conversion — Rudock to Trenton Irwin — gave the Dolphins the lead.
"When you win, you feel happy, it brings energy,'' quarterback Jameis Winston said. "It doesn’t matter when. A win is tough to get in this league.''
Here’s the thing about the Bucs. Every year, they’re the ones knocking on the door. But too often that pounding is just coming from inside the cellar of the NFC South, where they’ve dwelled for eight of the past 10 seasons.
Bucs coach Bruce Arians, the two-time NFL Coach of the Year, has arrived to change all that.
He’s said Tampa Bay has all the ingredients of a playoff team: A franchise quarterback in Winston to save. A young defense that needed just a few more pieces and a scheme change under defensive coordinator Todd Bowles to savor.
In the Bucs’ 30-28 preseason opener at Pittsburgh last Friday, there was reason to celebrate. Winston engineered a near-flawless 81-yard drive for a touchdown. Arians was hoping for another sharp start by his first-team offense while cleaning up the penalties.
It’s hard to find a looser head coach than Arians, but he preaches discipline.
"The continuation of the dumbest penalties I’ve seen by our second and third group,'' Arians said. “And they’re lucky we don’t cut tomorrow.”
The Bucs first-team offense wasn’t nearly as sharp as it was against the Steelers. Winston went 2-for-4 passing for 24 yards, was sacked once and pressured another time when running back Ronald Jones appeared to miss a blitz pickup. This time, the Bucs first-team offense failed to put any points on the board.
Running back Andre Ellington, who is battling to win the job as the Bucs’ third down back, lost a fumble.
There were dropped passes by Justin Watson and Bobo Wilson, a dropped interception by cornerback Jamel Dean and another by linebacker Kevin Minter.
And there were more costly penalties. Oh, those flags. The Bucs had eight penalties, six resulting in first downs.
Deone Bucannon was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct to keep one Dolphins drive alive on third down. A defensive holding penalty on Patrick O’Connor negated a big loss on a blitz by linebacker Kevin Minter.
The quarterbacks have a head for a reason, so you don’t hit them in the head,'' Arians aaid. "We slapped them in the head three times. They got a big first down when we had them backed up and it killed our field position.''
Tampa Bay had 12 men on the field when the Dolphins were preparing to punt. Demone Harris was called for roughing former Bucs quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick on third down, resulting in a new set of downs. All told the Bucs had three roughing penalties and Harris had two of them.
Even when the Bucs did have a big play on offense, like when running back Dare Ogunbowale turned a short pass from Griffin and turned it into a 40-yard gain, it was called back by a questionable holding penalty on guard Zach Bailey.
Last season, the Bucs had the sixth-most penalties in the NFL with 117. It’s something they can’t afford to repeat.
Okay, time for the big disclaimer.
Preseason games don’t count, and for the most part, they may not matter. There wasn’t a Bucs starter on the field on either side of the ball after only a few minutes.
The Bucs got plenty of work against the Dolphins during the week, and to the untrained eye, they seemed to win more of the battles than they lost.
But around here, where Bucs fans look for any signs of life from the team that hasn’t made the playoffs in 11 years, it helps to do more than play a sloppy game on a sloppy field after a day of sloppy weather.
If you’re looking for any morsels of hope, nobody got hurt Friday.
Ogunbowale took a screen pass 42 yards from Griffin in the fourth quarter, the longest play of the game, to set up Cairo Santos’ game-tying 23-yard field goal. Outside linebacker Shaq Barrett had one sack and flushed Josh Rosen into the arms of O’Connor for another one. Dean intercepted a pass from Rudock in the end zone with the scored tied and 6:23 remaining.
Griffin threw a 4-yard touchdown pass to tight end Tanner Hudson with 3:35 to play, his second in as many weeks.
Look, Mike Evans has yet to catch a pass, so yes, preseason games are the cubic zirconia of the NFL.
But as a team, whether it’s during joint practices or preseason games, the Bucs have to learn how not to play down to the level of their opponent.
That’s what the Bucs have done too often and there are no easy outs in the NFC South.
What the Bucs put on the field Friday wasn’t a great product. Arians warned before the game he was prepared to cut from 90 to 60 players. After Friday, you have to wonder if he has 53 he wants to keep.