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London calling? Bucs should refuse to answer

Tampa Bay is 0-2 in games across the pond despite trying various approaches. They’ll try again on Sunday against Carolina.
The Bucs take the field before the game against the Chicago Bears at Wembley Stadium in London in 2011. [Times]
Published Oct. 10
Updated Oct. 10

LONDON — Here is the only thing to say about the Bucs when it comes to playing games in London: They have been lousy on two continents.

Sure, the previous trips occurred during lean years under Raheem Morris in 2009 and 2011.

How long ago was that? Byron Leftwich began the 2009 season as the Bucs’ starting quarterback but was injured by the time the team arrived in England to face the Patriots on Oct. 25. Josh Freeman made his NFL debut in a mop-up role at Wembley Stadium in a 35-7 loss.

Two years later against the Bears at Wembley, Freeman’s comeback attempt fell short in part because Aqib Talib poked receiver Roy Williams in the face. On purpose. That drew a penalty that melted more than two minutes off the clock late in the 24-18 loss.

Talib also was also at the center of a confrontation with Morris when he was met in the lobby of the team hotel breaking curfew during the week.

When it comes to playing overseas, the Bucs have kept the visit short and stayed long.

They have treated the event like any other regular-season game, and they have given it all the seriousness of a Pro Bowl.

Once, going overseas to play an NFL game was a novelty. Now it’s a nuisance. As the Bucs prepare for Sunday’s game against the Panthers at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in London, they’ve done all they can to minimize the overseas impact.

Their travel plans were designed to make sure they spend as little time as possible in England.

They boarded a Virgin Atlantic charter flight after practice Thursday and were to arrive in London this morning. After a few hours to rest at the team hotel, they are scheduled to practice late this afternoon. There is to be a walk-through in the hotel ballroom Saturday morning, then players have only a few hours of free time to meet friends and family or go into the city.

Demar Dotson, who turns 34 today, is the only player to be with the Bucs for all three trips to London.

“I remember the food just being bad,’’ Dotson said. “And I remember the long flight time. That’s what I really remember about it. The food just being terrible. I kind of like the short trip (this time) because I don’t want to spend a whole week away from family and stuff. So I prefer to get in and get out.’’

Losing aside, there have been things to like about playing in London. The atmosphere during the game has been electric. Fans cheer good plays for both teams, giving the games a Super Bowl feel.

The most popular player is anyone who kicks. Bradley Pinion will be beloved for his kickoffs and towering punts. Placekicker Matt Gay is a former soccer player whose wife, Millie, was born in England. Gay’s favorite soccer team happens to be Tottenham Hotspur of the Premier League.

This is an entirely different kind of appearance in England for the Bucs from their previous two times.

Following the 2008 season, the Glazer family decided to fire coach Jon Gruden and gut the franchise. It was the start of three straight years without a salary floor for money to be spent on players.

So the Bucs started purging players with high salaries. They got rid of iconic veterans including Derrick Brooks and kept relative unknowns such as Geno Hayes.

Chances are, Gruden would have never gone for that plan, and the Glazers knew it. They fired Gruden three weeks after the season ended and installed Morris as coach and Mark Dominik as general manager.

Ten days before the 2009 season opener, the Bucs fired offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski, whom they discovered was incapable of calling plays. Quarterbacks coach Greg Olson took over as offensive coordinator, albeit with the old scheme.

Though the Bucs had drafted Freeman in the first round in 2009, they wanted Leftwich to be the starter, with Josh Johnson as his backup. The Bucs started 0-6, Leftwich got hurt early in the season, and it was inevitable that Freeman would get his chance.

Against the Patriots in Week 7, Johnson threw three interceptions and the game got out of hand. That’s when Morris put in a phone call to Dominik to ask whether it was time to put Freeman into his first game.

It was. Freeman didn’t do much, completing 2 of 4 passes for 16 yards. He was sacked twice and scrambled once for 5 yards. The Bucs fell to 0-7, but that earned Freeman the start following the bye week against the Packers, a game he won 38-28.

The Bucs finished the season 3-13.

By the time they returned to London two years later, Freeman was coming off a 10-6 season and had led Morris’ team to a 4-2 start, with wins over the Falcons and Saints.

Winning 14 out of 22 games still remains one of the best stretches in franchise history. But Dominik and the Bucs had taken chances on players with questionable character who were still learning what it was to be a pro, players such as Talib, wide receiver Mike Williams and running back LeGarrette Blount.

Talib challenged Morris and his authority, ignoring a curfew all week. He wasn’t alone. The resort where the Bucs stayed, many miles from downtown London, had a soccer field neatly carved out its lawn, so it took no effort to attend practice.

The Bucs hung tough against the Bears, but Blount had to leave the game with an injury and running back Earnest Graham tore an Achilles. The Bucs did not win another game after that, finishing 4-12. Morris was fired.

Sunday provides another opportunity for the Bucs to get a win in London.

It’s a long way to go to play a game. Even longer if you lose.


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