TAMPA — This is exactly the way you should remember this Bucs team:
Packed stadium. National buzz. Historic possibilities. And a colossal disappointment.
There wasn’t a TV executive alive who didn’t want to get this team under the lights, and yet there wasn’t a red carpet unfurled that these Bucs couldn’t stumble on. And occasionally soil, too.
The 2022 Bucs were a playoff team, but not a very good team.
Finally, that’s official. A 31-14 loss to Dallas in the first round of the playoffs on Monday night confirmed it. In retrospect, the 17 regular-season games often shouted it.
Oh, to their credit, they would somehow sucker us back in. (And that’s coming from the guy who often carried the Sucker King’s scepter.) They began with the promise of something special, talked their way through all their disappointments, beat some crappy teams and had everyone convinced they would show up in January.
And then … humiliation.
They couldn’t run from here to there. Tom Brady seemed perpetually confused. The secondary looked like a bunch of guys they rounded up in the parking lot. And the play-calling was as uninspired as ever.
This loss would have fit right in with every season finale from 2009-19.
“It was an up-and-down year,” said cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting. “We never caught our groove. We’d catch it for a game or two, and then lose it again.”
So — besides home — where do the Bucs go from here?
Honestly, after a lackluster regular season that gave way to a butt-ugly postseason, nothing should be off the table. No job should be safe.
Changes are sure to be coming, and I’m guessing it’ll start with the quarterback. When it was all over, the 45-year-old Brady acted like a man taking his final trip to a locker room. He waved to the crowd, tipped his ballcap and then stopped to kiss his parents, who made a rare appearance in the tunnel.
Later, as Brady sat shirtless in front of his locker, a Bucs employee bent down and whispered into his ear. The quarterback reached into his locker and pulled out his jersey top.
Instead of going in the giant hamper in the middle of the locker room, the jersey was taken outside and handed to a Brady acquaintance who shoved it inside his jacket and hurried away.
There was a sense of finality to it all, but Brady has surprised us before.
If nothing else, this game showed Brady and the rest of the world just how much work needs to be done in Tampa Bay. The offensive line is not capable of protecting a quarterback on the downslope toward 50. The Bucs desperately need more speed on the outside. And offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich could be a convenient, and somewhat deserving, scapegoat.
The problem is this wasn’t a fluke. This was Tampa Bay’s 10th loss in the last 16 games.
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“That’s the way the game goes,” said offensive tackle Donovan Smith. “Playoffs are win or go home. It’s just unfortunate. We didn’t want the season to end this way. We were a lot better. We were capable of accomplishing more but got outplayed (Monday).”
The Bucs were good enough to make it here, but not good enough to put up a legitimate fight.
They were good enough to titillate us all season, but not good enough to follow through on preseason expectations that had them in the Super Bowl.
They were good enough to give Brady another division title and another playoff appearance, but not good enough to allow him to walk into the night with the dignity his career deserved.
“Yeah man, it hurts. It sucks,” Murphy-Bunting said. “Just knowing that the locker room will never be the same. Potentially, you won’t be around certain guys again. You never really know what will happen.”
And so, finally, the charade is over, and reality must be faced.
Is this team close enough to get by with a few revisions, or is an overhaul necessary? Should the Glazers put a full-court press on Brady to bring him back in 2023, or is it obvious that his time here is done?
Does Todd Bowles deserve a second chance after being rushed into the job last offseason, or does his 32-49 record as a head coach in the NFL speak for itself?
Those, however, are questions for the coming weeks.
On Monday night, there were no answers, just bittersweet goodbyes.
Before heading into the postgame news conference, Brady walked across the room to shake hands and hug each of his offensive linemen.
Center Ryan Jensen, sitting on a stool, got a kiss from Brady on the top of his red head. And then the NFL’s most successful quarterback headed toward the door.
John Romano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
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