TAMPA — Some teams have turning points. The Bucs have surrender points.
It’s that moment in every season when you realize it’s all been for naught. All the anticipation, all the hope, all the money. It all goes poof in a single afternoon of pratfalls and moronic calls. It’s been that way around here for the better part of a decade.
So let it be recorded that 2019’s surrender came on Sunday.
Oh, I know what you’re thinking. This season was tumbling downhill long before the 34-17 stinker against the Saints on Sunday.
But it’s not as simple as a winning record. Hardly anyone expected the Bucs to rise up from last season’s 5-11 mess to make the playoffs in 2019. But you did expect — and have every right to expect — a franchise showing some sign of walking, crawling or even stumbling toward respectability.
And Sunday’s game made it clear the Bucs still can’t get out of their own way.
Just consider the clues in front of you:
No. 1 — The Bucs made substantial progress on defense last year after coordinator Mike Smith was fired and replaced by Mark Duffner in mid-October. In the final 11 games under Duffner, Tampa Bay gave up 24.5 points (not including returns) and 357.6 yards a game. This year, under new coordinator Todd Bowles, they’re giving up 28.5 points (not including returns) and 371.8 yard a game.
And that’s after bringing in free agents Ndamukong Suh and Shaquil Barrett, using the No. 5 pick in the draft on linebacker Devin White and taking three defensive backs in the first three rounds. At what point does this defense start getting better?
No. 2 — Among full-time starters, Jameis Winston had the highest interception rate in the NFL from 2015-18. And somehow, it’s gone up in 2019. By a lot. In his first four seasons, he threw an interception, on average, every 33.1 passes. Now, he’s throwing one every 22.5 passes.
Now, just to be clear, Sunday’s loss was hardly on Winston’s shoulders. The first interception was not his fault and, by the end of the game, he was throwing desperation passes. But at what point does Winston start taking better care of the ball?
No. 3 — Tampa Bay was one of the league’s top scoring teams coming into Sunday’s game, but it’s still hard to pinpoint this offense’s identity. They pay a ton of money to tight ends and brag about their talent, but hardly ever use them. O.J. Howard turned a catchable ball into an interception in the first quarter on Sunday and was never heard from again.
They want to lessen the pressure on Winston, but Sunday’s game featured the fewest running plays in Bucs history. Tampa Bay’s running backs had six carries for 13 yards. If you’re counting, that means they called passes on 55 of their 61 offensive plays. That’s a nifty 90 percent.
No. 4 — They continue to make decisions for silly reasons. Last week, head coach Bruce Arians said he purposefully gave away a time-out in the fourth quarter of a close game because he wanted to make a point with officials by illegally throwing a challenge flag. I thought it was the dumbest explanation I would hear all year. I was wrong.
On Sunday, Winston was sent limping back into a game when the Bucs were losing by 17 and there was only five minutes remaining. Backup quarterback Ryan Griffin was ready to go, but Winston said he was fine and so Arians let him return.
What?!?! This is your potential franchise player and you’re going to let him talk his way back into a meaningless blowout while he’s playing on a bad ankle? Are the coaches so afraid of a quarterback controversy that they don’t want to risk Griffin throwing a touchdown pass in garbage time?
And do you know the worst part?
The Bucs could win next week against Atlanta. They could win the following week in Jacksonville, too. It’s not inconceivable that they win three or four games down the stretch against non-contenders and delude themselves into believing they’ve reached that elusive turning point.
But if you’ve been watching closely enough you’ll know this team is a long way from being among the NFL’s elite. They score a lot of points, they play a lot of close games, they have a handful of elite players, but this team is too erratic and undisciplined to ever count on.
You know that because you’ve seen it before.
John Romano can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.