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If the Bucs aren’t embarrassed Monday morning, then we have a problem

John Romano | A collapse against the Bengals suggests Tampa Bay has lost its swagger and pride.
 
Published Dec. 19, 2022|Updated Dec. 19, 2022

TAMPA — Bless you, Atlanta, and your rookie quarterback.

Thank you, Carolina, for firing your coach and dumping Baker Mayfield.

So thoughtful of you, New Orleans, to pick this season to suddenly go belly up.

Yes, because the Bucs play in the Land of Misfit Football known as the NFC South, the playoffs are still within reach. In fact, the odds say Tampa Bay will be playing at home in the first week of the postseason.

So, in the grand scheme of things, Sunday’s confounding, infuriating and embarrassing 34-23 loss to Cincinnati really isn’t that big of a deal.

As long as you’re willing to leave your pride at the locker room door.

You know, that used to be a big thing around here. It was Bruce Arians’ first mission when he became head coach in 2019. He was going to change Tampa Bay’s ingrained, defeatist culture no matter how many heads had to roll, helmets included.

And, lo and behold, the Bucs soon began to play with confidence. With swagger. Best of all, with an expectation they were going to win no matter who was on the opposite sideline.

Sadly, the Bucs no longer strut. They barely even preen.

The second half was such a total collapse for the Bucs, that some fans didn't wait around for the final few minutes.
The second half was such a total collapse for the Bucs, that some fans didn't wait around for the final few minutes. [ Luis Santana ]

If I was playing amateur psychiatrist, I’d say coach Todd Bowles knows that. It’s why he challenged the players after the debacle in San Francisco last week. He told them it was their responsibility to decide what kind of team they wanted to be. To salvage the season before it was too late.

Instead, you got a collective collapse on Sunday. The Bucs blew a 17-point lead against the Bengals because they folded at the first sign of adversity.

The botched fake punt early in the third quarter was a needlessly aggressive move from Bowles who is usually aggressively conservative. But, even after that blunder, the score was only 17-6.

What followed was like a master class in self-destructive behavior.

A holding penalty and an interception in the next series. A hold and a facemask penalty on defense. A fumble on the next offensive series, followed by another interception after that.

And these weren’t all rookies and backups making mistakes. This was Tom Brady. This was Lavonte David. This was Carlton Davis. This was one silly mistake after another from the oldest roster in the NFL.

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Bucs vs. Bucs is what Bowles called it afterward. That’s a wimpy, euphemistic way of saying his team just gave away an increasingly rare chance to win, days after he called them out.

“It’s like we can’t get out of our own way,” tight end Cameron Brate said. “I wish I had a better answer for you. For the whole team, it’s embarrassing how we played in the second half.”

Tom Brady (12) is seen leaving the field in frustration after failing to convert a first down.
Tom Brady (12) is seen leaving the field in frustration after failing to convert a first down. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

Sure, some portion of Tampa Bay’s 6-8 record is due to an imperfect roster. Retirements, free agency, injuries and age have conspired to weaken what was once one of the most talented groups in the NFL.

But there’s a difference between losing a game and giving it away. The Bucs outgained the Bengals 396-237 on Sunday. They had more first downs, held the ball longer and were nearly as good in the red zone.

And they still lost by a mile.

That’s because they played like a team looking over its shoulder.

“It’s definitely eye-opening if you’re looking from the outside in,” said cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting. “I just think guys have to be more accountable. Accountable to themselves. Not pointing at somebody else, not trying to put the blame on somebody else.

“It’s easy to say, ‘Oh, this lost us the game,’ or ‘That lost us the game.’ But next week, that same offense or that same defense might win us a game. So we all need to be accountable. We all need to be one of the 11 that is doing their job the way they’re supposed to.”

Again, this was not a disaster in the standings. The Bucs still have a one-game lead in the NFC South, and all the tiebreaker advantages. If they beat Carolina and Atlanta in the final two weeks of the season, they’ll likely be playing Dallas at Raymond James Stadium the weekend of Jan. 14-15.

“Everything is still in front of us, which is crazy,” Brate said. “Just find a way to pick up some steam towards the end of the year, hopefully get into the playoffs and anything can happen.”

Unfortunately, there is a cost beyond the won-loss record in a game like Sunday’s.

Little by little, week after week, the Bucs are losing sight of the team they used to be.

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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