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Bucs-Cardinals: Why this is a must-win for Tampa Bay

There’s more at stake than just a game Sunday. It’s a referendum on the Bucs’ years-long rebuild and commitment to Jameis Winston.
With first-round draft pick Kyler Murray as their quarterback, the Cardinals already have won as many games this season as they won all of last season.
With first-round draft pick Kyler Murray as their quarterback, the Cardinals already have won as many games this season as they won all of last season. [ ROSS D. FRANKLIN | Associated Press ]
Published Nov. 9, 2019
Updated Nov. 10, 2019

When Bruce Arians first arrived at One Buccaneer Place in Tampa, team employees filled the lobby to give a hero’s welcome to, as general manager Jason Licht dubbed him, “the coolest damn coach in the NFL.”

Ah, January 2019. The good old days. Never forget.

Eleven months later, the Bucs are still the Bucs. 2019 is 2018 is 2017 is 2016 is 2015. For five straight seasons, Tampa Bay has been either 2-6 or 3-5 at the halfway point, not good enough to contend for the playoffs but not bad enough to “contend” for the top overall pick in the next draft. Welcome to sports purgatory, where time is a flat circle with no beginning and no end and where every game is a copy of a copy of a copy.

If the NFL playoffs were a nightclub, the Bucs would be the suckers stuck behind the velvet rope who believe that any minute now it will be their turn. In 2015, the beginning of the Jameis Winston era, the Bucs were one of 10 teams who hadn’t been to the playoffs in at least four seasons. Since then, seven have ended their droughts — the Bills, Raiders, Rams, Jaguars, Dolphins, Titans and Bears. The Bucs, along with the Browns and Jets, are still waiting and are likely to continue waiting.

Even teams who started rebuilds after the Bucs have passed them by. The 49ers, who in 2016 finished 2-14, are the last remaining unbeaten team this season and are credible Super Bowl contenders. The Texans, who in 2017 finished 4-12, have played one of the league’s toughest schedules and still sit atop the AFC South. There’s another team looking to cut in line, and it’s the Bucs next opponent: the 3-5-1 Cardinals, whom Arians coached from 2013 to 2017.

For Tampa Bay, there’s more at stake than just a game Sunday. It’s a referendum on the Bucs’ rebuild. If they win, so what? They’ll be 3-6 instead of 2-7. See you at the parade 11 a.m. Tuesday.

If they lose? It’d be a categorical repudiation of everything they’ve done the past five years. How could anyone — with a straight face — argue that the organization is on the right track?

Not long ago, the Cardinals were the team that was ignoring the future. They kept trying to squeeze one more run out of an aging and expensive core that in 2015 was one win away from playing in the Super Bowl. Then a banged-up Carson Palmer regressed and an ailing Arians, the bottom block in the teetering Jenga tower, chose retirement over quarterback development. In 2018, three seasons after Arizona won 13 regular-season games, it lost 13. The collapse was complete.

Think the Bucs make ill-informed decisions? This past offseason, the Cardinals fired coach Steve Wilks, Arians’ successor, one year after hiring him. They traded quarterback Josh Rosen, their 2018 first-round pick, one year after drafting him. And who’d they keep? The master of the disaster: general manager Steve Keim.

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It seemed as if they were stumbling through the wilderness, and maybe they were, but whether by accident or design, they avoided the trap that ensnares so many teams: the sunk cost fallacy, the idea that you might as well continue doing something because you’ve already paid for it or spent time on it. Yes, the Cardinals essentially wasted a year, but they didn’t waste a second, third, fourth or even a fifth year trying to justify their original investment. Instead, they started over with Kliff Kingsbury and Kyler Murray, and their future is brighter because of it.

Contrast their approach with the Bucs’ approach. Everything they’ve done they’ve done for Winston. They’ve spent significant financial and draft capital on bolstering the offensive line, the second-most expensive line in the NFL (the Cowboys have the most expensive line, but they have three former All-Pros). They’ve also spent significant financial and draft capital on adding or retaining skill position players. They’ve cycled through coaches. They’ve avoided signing quality backup quarterbacks. They’ve made excuses.

And what kind of return have they gotten on their investment? Winston is having the worst season of his career, and while the team, as a whole, might be better than it was in 2015, it’s still not good enough. Not even close. The Bucs are stuck because they continue to avoid this truth, hoping that a radical change is imminent. It is not. And if they lose Sunday, at home to a rookie quarterback, that will be undeniable.

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