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Buccaneers-49ers AfterMath: No one’s laughing

Tampa Bay’s comedy of errors in Sunday’s loss was all too familiar. It felt just like 2018. And 2017. And 2016. And 2015 ...
A scene from the Bucs game Sunday at Raymond James Stadium or the new Joker movie? [Warner Bros.]
Published Sep. 9
Updated Sep. 10

TAMPA — What did we watch?

A Tampa Bay Buccaneers football game or the trailer for the new Joker movie?

No matter, it was a clown show at Raymond James Stadium on Sunday.

Penalties. Fumbles. Interceptions.

It felt … familiar. We’ve seen this before, and it’s not funny.

Sunday was supposed to be a new beginning, the start of the Bucco Bruce era. It was supposed to be different.

Well, it was. For the wrong team.

The 49ers had lost eight straight road games. They also had gone eight straight games without intercepting a pass. The Bucs helped them snap both streaks.

Give the Bucs credit for this much: They’re good hosts. They probably gave the 49ers rides back to the airport, too.

And so here we are after Tampa Bay’s 31-17 loss, staring into the abyss once again. As Arthur Fleck might say, all we have are negative thoughts. But are things really that bad? Is it time to panic? Let’s put this loss into perspective.

MORE BUCS: The Bucs ruined another fine Sunday afternoon, John Romano writes

What happened

Despite a sloppy first two quarters, the Bucs took a 7-6 lead into halftime, thanks to a Vernon Hargreaves interception return. It took all of three minutes for Tampa Bay to turn that one-point lead into a 13-point deficit. Again, familiar. The team squandered halftime leads in its final two home games last season, too.

Maybe the Bucs, not the Rays, should consider playing half their season in Montreal. Judging from the swaths of empty seats Sunday — despite a pregame Tim McGraw concert — fans aren’t happy with the product on the field. They don’t like it, they don’t love it and they don’t want any more of it.

MORE BUCS: What we learned Sunday

What changed

Of course the Bucs made a game of it, because that’s what they do. They make you swear “never again!” and then reel you back. Remember the Steelers game last season? The Bengals game? The Giants game? The Bucs were losing by at least 17 points in each of them. They lost all three by a combined nine points. In the end, it never seems as bad as it truly is. The Bucs can say, “Drrrrr, one-score games, bad luck.” It’s art.

Let’s be clear: The Bucs didn’t lose Sunday because of bad luck. In fact, Tampa Bay caught a break late in the third quarter when San Francisco’s 57-yard field bounced off the crossbar and fell forward. The Bucs, trailing 20-14, took possession near midfield, giving them a realistic chance at pulling off a fourth-quarter comeback and erasing the “same ol’ Bucs” narrative.

Faced with a fourth-and-2 decision, coach Bruce Arians decided to try for the go-ahead touchdown rather than settle for the field goal. If you live by the “no risk it, no biscuit” mantra, is there any other choice?

When Tampa Bay lined up with five receivers, tweeters lost their minds, but the play design gave the Bucs the opening they were looking for. The quarterback simply did not execute. Jameis Winston’s pass to an uncovered Chris Godwin was late, and 49ers safety Tarvarius Moore nearly picked it off.

In all, Winston threw three interceptions Sunday, but it could have been five had the 49ers not dropped two. Mind you, this defense intercepted two passes all of last season.

You could argue that Winston was late because Cameron Brate, who was running to the near right pylon, was his first read. Or you could argue, as Arians did, that Godwin didn’t run his slant route exactly as he was supposed to.

“I loved the play,” Arians said. “I think that (the 49ers) actually busted the coverage, and it surprised them. But (Winston) threw the ball late. But I loved the play call. It was just the execution of it, with two guys in a situation that we haven’t seen before.”

What? Haven’t seen before? This is Winston’s fifth season and Godwin’s third. Besides, isn’t that what training camp is for?

The bottom line is that your veteran franchise quarterback needs to make that throw. It’s a simple read to one side of the field and should be a snap decision. Drop back and fire.

Carson Palmer did it in Arizona. Here are a couple of similar plays, though the receivers were spread farther apart. Both passes resulted in completions to Larry Fitzgerald:

Cardinals at Rams, 2016: Third and goal from the Los Angeles 5, 11:40 left in the fourth quarter [NFL Game Pass]
Packers at Cardinals, 2015: Third and goal at the Green Bay 3, 14:11 left in the second quarter [NFL Game Pass]

What it means

After the game, Arians second-guessed his fourth-down decision.

“I probably got greedy,” he said. “Should’ve taken the three points and kept it a three-point game."

That wasn’t greedy. It was smart.

The conventional thing to do is to take the points, which is great if you’re just interested in appearances and keeping the game close. If you’re interested in winning, the optimal thing to do is to go for the touchdown. Math backs up Arians on that.

The counterargument is that Arians took three points off the board, but that reasoning is flawed because he never gave up three points. The Bucs ultimately scored them anyway. One of the benefits of going for a touchdown in fourth-and-goal situations is that even if the offense fails, the opponent will be backed up against its end zone. In that part of the field, teams are three times more likely to give the ball back than they are to score. And that’s exactly what happened. The 49ers ended up punting.

The problem was that the Bucs offense stalled inside the red zone (Tampa Bay scored one touchdown in four visits Sunday). On their final two plays of the drive — a Ronald Jones run for a loss and a Winston sack — their weakness at right guard was exposed. On the third-and-7 play that resulted in the sack, no one was immediately open, but Winston didn’t have much of a chance once 49ers defensive lineman Arik Armstead pushed Bucs guard Alex Cappa onto his lap.

Arik Armstead sacks Jameis Winston for a 5-yard loss on third down, and the Bucs kick a 31-yard field goal to cut the 49ers' lead to 20-17. [NFL Game Pass]

MORE BUCS: Next stop: Josh Freeman

There’s no sugar coating it: Winston was bad. It was one of the worst games of his career. He looked like a rookie playing the Titans again. Is it just a coincidence that Sunday was his first game playing for a new coach and coordinator?

The missed opportunity on fourth down stings, and two of Winston’s three interceptions were ugly. But he will be better. Remember, you’ve seen this movie before. That’s the plot. Every. Season. So keep those Ryan Griffin takes to yourself, at least for the next couple of months.

The larger concern is whether the failed fourth-down attempt influences Arians’ decision-making going forward. The strategy was sound; the execution was not.

Look around the NFL. Who do you want to be? Do you want to make fear-based decisions like Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, who while losing to the Patriots 20-0 Sunday chose to kick a field goal on fourth and goal at the 1-yard line? (The Steelers lost 33-3.) Or do you want to make math-based decisions like Eagles coach Doug Pederson, who while losing to Washington 20-7 chose to go for it on fourth and 1 from the Philadelphia 34? (The Eagles won 32-27.)

The Bucs’ loss was a harsh reality check, but it was hardly a season killer. Big picture, contention is at least a year away. In the short term, there’s a way for the Bucs to right themselves and prevent a tailspin: Stay aggressive. You can’t play this game afraid. Field goals don’t win games; touchdowns do. Of the 12 teams who won Sunday, 11 scored more touchdowns than their opponents.

Contact Thomas Bassinger at tbassinger@tampabay.com. Follow @tometrics.

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