As Marcus Williams, interception in hand, raced down the sideline, a battered Jameis Winston feebly limped along, chasing what he knew he could not catch.
When Williams reached the end zone, that was it. With 5:08 left in the fourth quarter Sunday, Buccaneers fans pronounced the 2019 season dead and headed for the exits.
And so we wait. Again.
There will be no caps and T-shirts. There will be no boasts of “Nobody believed in us.” There will be no football in January.
We haven’t seen the Bucs in a playoff game since Jan. 6, 2008. Nearly 12 years ago. What’s one more?
You’re hungry and frustrated, and if you had any patience left, Sunday’s 34-17 drubbing surely took the last of it.
So what now?
The next six weeks will feel like an extended funeral, with anyone watching or talking about this hopeless team serving as the pallbearers. We’ll hear calls, some of them justified, for accountability and sweeping change, from the owners’ suite to the football field. General manager Jason Licht (30-60 since he joined the team in 2014), coach Bruce Arians (3-7 since he joined the team in January) and Winston (24-40 since he joined the team in 2015) will be the primary targets.
As perverse as it might seem, though, Sunday’s loss was a gift. Perhaps this is what Tampa Bay needed — a thorough beating to shake it from delusion. Now that 2019 is over, 2020 can begin.
There’s no point in mourning. The fact is, no one cares. The next six weeks are an opportunity, an opportunity to prove that playing good football can be just as much of a habit as playing bad football.
The Bucs, believe it or not, have done that before. In 2016, the Falcons dominated them on Thursday Night Football in a game that was over as early as Sunday’s game. Tampa Bay fell to 3-5.
“We found a way after that to win five straight,” tight end Cameron Brate said. “It just starts with one. We won last week and were hoping that it’d carry over to this week, and obviously it didn’t. We’ve just got to find a way to win one game and then find a way to keep it rolling after that.”
These Bucs probably don’t have a six-game win streak in them, but that’s not Brate’s point. His point is that it’s easy for one loss to turn into two losses. And if one loss can turn into two losses, then one win can turn into two wins.
It just starts with one.
Look over the rest of this season’s schedule. It might not feel like it at this moment, but they’re all winnable games. At the Falcons. At the Jaguars. Home vs. the Colts. At the Lions. Home vs. the Texans. Home vs. the Falcons.
Sunday’s game was a setback, no doubt, but this is no time to surrender. It’s a single defeat. It doesn’t cancel out the Week 4 win against the Rams or the effort in the Week 9 loss to the Seahawks. There will be time to talk about whether the Bucs should hit the reset button, but there is plenty more to learn about this team, provided it’s still interested in proving that it’s better than its 3-7 record.
Maybe there’s a game in there like the epochal 1996 upset over the Chargers in San Diego, a game that many claim was a turning point in franchise history. No, this Bucs team isn’t headed to the playoffs, but in 2020? Drew Brees will be another year older, and the Saints will be candidates for regression. The Panthers and Falcons’ futures are very much in flux. The division will be there for the taking.
Today, I’m thinking about Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Bill Lyon, who died Sunday at 81 after a long fight with Alzheimer’s disease. In 1996, he wrote this about an embattled college basketball coach:
“Anyone can afford to be magnanimous during times of success, but … it takes considerably more courage, vision and perspective to support a man when the floodwaters are lapping at his feet.”
The floodwaters are rising in Tampa Bay. The Bucs have six weeks to show us what they’re made of.