They had the ball, they had the lead, they had the NFC South in their hip pocket.
And the Bucs choked.
They had a ticking clock, they had a last-place opponent, they had cold beer in their future.
And the Bucs gagged.
Eleven games into the season, Sunday’s 23-17 overtime loss in Cleveland is the wakeup call you have been dreading. No matter how much faith you possess, the reality is inescapable.
This team is destined to disappoint you.
It doesn’t matter that Tom Brady is in the huddle, and it doesn’t matter that the defense has been mostly laudable. It doesn’t matter that Tampa Bay went 24-9 the past two seasons, and it doesn’t matter that the Bucs seemed to find themselves on a road trip to Germany.
The truth is that this team cannot be trusted. Not with a lead, and not with your heart.
Oh, because they play in a historically bad division, the Bucs may still make the playoffs. Good heavens, the four NFC South teams have combined for a comically inept 11-21 record outside the division.
So, yeah, the Bucs may limp into January with a 9-8 record and a coveted home game in the postseason. But that would be just one more tease in a season of torment.
You recognize that, right? The final stumbling, oblivious, wheezing minutes of Sunday’s game should be all the confirmation you need.
Given the ball with a 17-10 lead and 2:35 on the clock, the Bucs needed just a first down or two to swat the Browns aside, but Brady and the offense blew it …
Asked to pin the Browns deep in their territory after booming eight punts for an average of 48.6 yards, rookie punter Jake Camarda shanked it …
Challenged to stop Cleveland’s journeyman quarterback, Jacoby Brissett, on fourth and 10 in the final minute, Devin White and the defense whiffed it …
Implored to give the most prolific fourth-quarter passer in NFL history a fighting chance at a winning drive by using his three remaining timeouts, coach Todd Bowles brain-farted it.
Folks, that’s what you call a complete collapse. A total failure. A Herschel Walker interview.
Free agency, injuries and age have diminished the Bucs’ roster, and that’s clearly part of the problem in 2022. Their talent level has reverted closer to the league norm, and that’s why seven of their 11 games have been decided by a single score.
The problem is the Bucs are losing more of those close games than reasonable. Especially when you consider that Brady is their quarterback. This is the most inept offense he has directed in a 23-year NFL career, and this is fast becoming the worst season of his professional life.
It’s as if the Bucs are so worried about making mistakes, they don’t try to make plays. Once they took the lead late in the third quarter, the offense curled up like a frightened armadillo. It began four consecutive drives with running plays that produced 1, 11, 2 and minus-3 yards.
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Those four drives produced a grand total of 25 yards on 16 plays.
Even when given a chance to stomp on Cleveland’s throat early in the fourth quarter, Bowles elected to punt rather than go for the first down on fourth and 2 from the Browns 37-yard line. The punt went in the end zone, and the Bucs netted 17 yards from that original line of scrimmage.
Later, when the Browns had moved into the red zone for a potential tying score, Bowles could have preserved time for Brady by using a pair of timeouts. Instead, he let at least one minute unnecessarily tick off the clock before the Browns tied the score.
On their final drive of regulation, the Bucs eventually moved into Cleveland territory, but Bowles — again — bypassed taking a timeout and later explained that was because the game was destined for overtime.
What? What! WHAT?!
That explanation defies logic. If Bowles had such little faith in Brady and his offense, they should have taken a knee and played for overtime. Otherwise, it makes no sense to throw downfield and then watch the clock run out with two timeouts remaining.
A team with such little margin for error cannot afford to lose games it is supposed to win.
And now, after Sunday’s debacle, the Bucs have lost games to the 3-7 Steelers, 4-7 Browns, 4-8 Panthers and 4-8 Packers.
That’s not a fluke. That’s the company you keep.
And that appears to be Tampa Bay’s destiny.
John Romano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
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