TAMPA — You are a Buccaneers fan, which means you have lived through worse seasons.
You have lived through worse offenses, worse game plans, worse quarterbacks, worse Octobers and worse postgame news conferences from worse coaches.
But have you ever lived through a worse fall from grace?
Until now, 2003 was the standard for disappointments around here. The Bucs were coming off a Super Bowl championship with most of the team still intact and, memorably, disintegrated in spectacular fashion during a “Monday Night Football” game against Indianapolis on the way to a 7-9 season.
None of us knows where the 2022 season will ultimately land — there are still nine games remaining — but these Bucs are at least flirting with a similar path to disenchantment and dismay after Thursday night’s 27-22 loss to Baltimore.
There was a time, not so many weeks ago, when Tampa Bay was considered the class of the NFC. A season-opening victory at Dallas, with a surprisingly emphatic running game and dominant defense, solidified the grand expectations of the offseason.
The division was soft, and Tampa Bay’s hopes for a first-round bye in the playoffs were solid. At the very least, a spot in the Super Bowl seemed somewhat plausible if not likely.
And, yet today, the Bucs are heading into November with more losses than they had all last season.
It’s sobering. It’s disappointing. It’s infuriating.
But is it surprising?
Were there clues that we overlooked? Were there portents of dark clouds ahead? A lot of us seemed to have horribly miscalculated the potential of this roster, but why were we so wrong?
And, before we go any further, I need to reiterate there is still time for the Bucs to turn this season around. The Bucs also struggled in the first two months of the 2020 season — although not to this degree — and still won the Super Bowl. The odds the Bucs come out of the weak NFC South with a playoff invitation are fairly decent, but the illusion of a glorious postseason march is all but shattered.
So, I want you to tell me, where did it go wrong?
Is it coaching? Is it personnel? Is it just time and destiny?
Let’s revisit some potential inflection points, and you can decide for yourself where this bandwagon blew a gasket. Or you can come up with theories of your own.
Either way, shoot me an email at email@example.com. Be sure to include your name and city of residence because we may decide to run a collection of responses.
The disintegration of the offensive line
By the time the 2021 season ended, Tampa Bay’s offensive line was universally lauded. Three of the five blockers had Pro Bowl invitations on their career resumes, and Pro Football Focus had ranked the unit as the second-best in the NFL. Tom Brady threw more passes than any quarterback in the league, and he was the only one to have been pressured on fewer than 20 percent of his dropbacks.
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Then came the surprising retirement of left guard Ali Marpet in late February. A few weeks later, right guard Alex Cappa signed a four-year, $40 million deal with the Bengals in free agency.
If that wasn’t bad enough, center Ryan Jensen blew out his knee on the second day of training camp. Within the space of a few months, all three interior linemen had to be replaced.
A year ago, PFF graded all five blockers at 70 or higher. Going into Thursday night’s game, Donovan Smith, Shaq Mason and Robert Hainsey were all below 70. Luke Goedeke was below 40.
A Gronk-less future for the offense
If Tom Brady was the superhero who saved a floundering franchise, then Rob Gronkowski was the greatest sidekick the NFL has known.
He came out of retirement a month after Brady signed in Tampa Bay in 2020, and spent two seasons here with 100 receptions and 13 touchdowns in 28 games. He also buoyed the offensive line with his blocking and enriched the locker room with his child-like exuberance.
When he retired again in June, it not only meant Brady was without his security blanket in the passing game, but also one of his best friends off the field.
Through eight games, the Bucs do not have a touchdown from a tight end.
Bruce Arians surprisingly steps away
There were no hints or warning signs. As far as the world could see, Arians was excited about the idea of returning to the sidelines for his fourth season as the Bucs head coach.
And then, two weeks after Brady unretired, Arians unexpectedly announced his retirement.
You can believe his explanation — with Brady coming back it was the perfect time to initiate the succession plan with Todd Bowles taking over — or you can believe the rumors that Brady wanted a change in the head coach’s office. Either way, the result is still the same.
The Bucs lost a head coach with a career winning percentage of .624 and replaced him with a head coach who had a .375 winning percentage during his four years in New York.
The NFL’s most successful QB returns
Do not misunderstand this point. The Bucs are not 3-5 because Brady is their quarterback. In fact, they would probably be in worse shape if Brady did not come back.
However, the Bucs are one of the NFL’s biggest disappointments in 2022 because Brady is their quarterback. You see, his return changed expectations. In some ways, it changed the NFL landscape.
The Bucs went from a team that looked like it might be ready for some rebuilding to a team that was in a hyper win-now mode.
They re-signed Jensen at center. They spent money to bring in Shaq Mason, Akiem Hicks, Logan Ryan, Russell Gage, Julio Jones and Kyle Rudolph. They gave Chris Godwin a fat contract. Leonard Fournette and Carlton Davis got big deals, too.
Brady is still an elite quarterback. He has the lowest interception rate in the NFL and he’s among the top five QBs in passing yards per game. But virtually no one would argue that he is playing as well in 2022 as he did in 2021. He’s another year older and his supporting cast is a few notches weaker.
That’s how history’s most successful quarterback has fallen two games below .500 for the first time in his career.
John Romano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
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