TAMPA — The Bucs enter the season half of the season with a 2-6 record, their hopes of the postseason essentially gone, and looking back on eight games full of missed opportunities.
Bucs coach Bruce Arians won’t debate where his team stands, but he will argue that if a few plays went their way they would likely be in a much more favorable position.
"Make those plays," Bucs coach Bruce Arians said Friday after his team wrapped up its final practice before Sunday's home game against the Cardinals. "If you want to win, you make those plays. If not, you’re going to be right where we’re at. ... You don’t know when they’re going to come, though.”
Even so, there’s no way to predict whether a few plays would have altered the outcome of game. This is football, not a crystal ball. But here’s a look at six plays that could have well changed the course of the Bucs season.
49ers’ Richard Sherman’s pick-six in Week 1
After the Bucs went into the locker room with a one-point halftime lead, the 49ers drove 75 yards for a touchdown to open the second half. Still down just 13-7, Jameis Winston threw a pass wide of running back Peyton Barber, who was lined up on the outside, and into the hands of Sherman, who had an easy 31-yard run into the end zone to make it a two-score game.
After the game, Arians said Barber didn’t cut outside soon enough. The Bucs came within three points late in the game before Winston threw another pick-six, but never regained momentum. It turned out San Francisco was is a good team, now 8-0, but that cross-country road win certainly gave the 49ers confidence coming out of the gate.
Daniel Jones’ fourth-quarter touchdown run
This marked the first of the Bucs’ final five-minute defensive failures as they allowed a rookie quarterback making his first NFL start to complete a Giants rally from an 18-point halftime deficit. Had the Bucs stopped the Giants on a fourth-and-5 at their own 7 with 1:24 left, they would have won. Instead, Jones ran through a hole as wide as the Lincoln Tunnel for a touchdown.
Tampa Bay tried to get too fancy. Defensive tackle Vita Vea ran a stunt to the outside to close down the pocket, and Ndamukong Suh couldn’t get back to the middle, leaving Jones with nothing but open field. The play made Jones the toast of New York and the national football scene — at least for one week — but since that game, the Giants are 1-5.
Matt Gay’s game-losing field goal attempt against the Giants
Even after the Bucs fourth-down breakdown, they still had an opportunity to beat the Giants at the end of regulation. Winston led the Bucs 66 yards down the field on three plays, connecting with Chris Godwin for 20 yards and Mike Evans on a 44-yard gain. After spiking the ball at the 9, the Bucs took a delay of game penalty, then moved the ball to the left hash, adding a net loss of seven yards to Matt Gay’s field goal attempt.
Gay should still make a 34-yard attempt, but that yardage mattered, because his kick sailed just barely wide of the right upright, sending the Bucs to an embarrassing 32-31 loss. It was Gay’s first chance to make a game-winning kick, and he converted his next 21 kicks before missing a 50-yarder last week in Seattle. But at the time, the miss evoked the Bucs’ ghosts of kickers past.
Antony Auclair’s phantom fumble recovery in New Orleans
The officials haven’t done the Bucs many favors this year, and this play might have been the biggest example. The Bucs were trailing 3-0 in the first quarter in New Orleans. Tampa Bay’s defense had just held the Saints to a field goal, and after a three and out, T.J. Logan wrapped up Saints punt returner Deonte Harris, jarring the ball loose as the play was whistled dead. Everyone but the officials knew it was a fumble, including Harris, who scampered to try to regain possession.
Tight end Antony Auclair pounced on the ball, and even emerged from a pile with the ball in his hand. The play was reviewed and the down by contact call was overturned, but because replay didn’t get clear video evidence of a Bucs recovery, possession stayed with the Saints. The Bucs would have had the ball at the Saints’ 22.
The fumble return that wasn’t against the Titans
Another play that NFL officiating won’t put on it’s resume and one that really defined the Bucs’ hard luck. The Bucs trailed by four in the game’s final four minutes when middle linebacker Devin White perfectly read Tennessee’s fake field goal attempt to seal the game. White delivered a crushing hit to punter Brett Kern as he failed to reach the line of scrimmage.
Replays showed that White clearly jarred the ball loose, but the play was again whistled dead, meaning Andrew Adams’ recovery and return for a touchdown was for naught. The Bucs received possession on the turnover on downs, but the advance couldn’t be reviewed or overturned. On the ensuing possession, the Bucs failed to convert a fourth-and-long one at the Titans 32 as Barber was stuffed up the gut.
Seahawks receiver D.K. Metcalf’s 59-yard touchdown reception in Seattle
The Bucs and Seahawks were tied at 27 with 4:34 left in the fourth and Seattle had a first-and-10 at its own 47. Metcalf lined up in the slot, got the inside on rookie cornerback Jamel Dean on a crossing route. Wilson hit Metcalf 23 yards downfield, and he went into the end zone untouched.
The Bucs brought the blitz often, and that left the middle of the field open far too often. On this play, the Seahawks had an extra offensive lineman in as an additional blocker and a running back in for protection, too. So Shaq Barrett, Jason Pierre-Paul and Vita Vea all received double-team attention. But the team inside linebacker Lavonte David filled the gap, it was too late.
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @EddieInTheYard.