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A Bucs decline was inevitable, but someone will still have to pay

John Romano | Too many rookies and too many salary cap problems have led to a 4-7 record and increasing heat on head coach Todd Bowles.
 
He won 11 of his first 21 games as Bucs head coach and earned a division title in 2022, but Todd Bowles is under increasing heat as Tampa Bay has lost six of its last seven games.
He won 11 of his first 21 games as Bucs head coach and earned a division title in 2022, but Todd Bowles is under increasing heat as Tampa Bay has lost six of its last seven games. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]
Published Nov. 28, 2023

TAMPA — Hey, remember when the Bucs traded for Rob Gronkowski a month after signing Tom Brady for $25 million a year? Wild, wild times.

And remember when they signed Leonard Fournette in September 2020 because Brady needed a more versatile running back? And remember when they signed Antonio Brown in October of that year even while he was under NFL suspension and even though they had Mike Evans and Chris Godwin? So cool.

You may also remember that was the same year the Bucs re-signed Ndamukong Suh and Jason Pierre-Paul when they were both free agents in the spring, and put a $15.8 million franchise tag on Shaquil Barrett. Man, that was some crazy stuff. But, what the heck, when you have a shot at a ring, you take your biggest swing.

Those seven players took up about 35% of the $198 million salary cap in 2020. They filled the bleachers at Raymond James Stadium, had networks fighting over prime-time spots, brought TMZ to Tampa Bay and won a Super Bowl that season.

In a roundabout way, they may also cost Todd Bowles his job in 2023.

We are all paying for the excesses of the 2020-21 Buccaneers when the Glazer family splurged on whatever Bruce Arians and Brady wanted. When you manipulate the salary cap beyond recognition, eventually the bookkeepers will have their say. And when you invest in defensive linemen in their 30s, a tight end coming out of retirement and a 43-year-old quarterback, you have to know the party will not last forever.

The bills are now due from that magical time when Tom Brady was the quarterback and the Bucs won the Super Bowl.
The bills are now due from that magical time when Tom Brady was the quarterback and the Bucs won the Super Bowl. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

That’s what we’re seeing today. This is the Super Bowl reckoning.

And no one feels it more than Bowles.

He’s trying to be the good soldier. He’s not complaining about the roster, and he’s not pointing fingers at rookies or underachieving millionaires on defense. He’s attempting to keep the ship steady because even a jayvee team can win the NFC South.

But expecting Bowles to win 10 games with this team was always an unrealistic ask. Think back to August. When NFL.com did its preseason power rankings, the Bucs were No. 30 out of 32 teams. ESPN had Tampa Bay at No. 31 and Sports Illustrated did, too. After the draft, BetMGM put Tampa Bay’s over/under for wins at 6.5.

The point is, hardly anyone outside of Carrollwood or Clearwater expected a winning season around here.

So, no, Todd Bowles is not the sole reason the Bucs are 4-7 today.

But that doesn’t mean his job performance is beyond critique. He decided to act as his own defensive coordinator, and that unit has taken an unexpected step backward in recent weeks. Two of the last three losses are squarely on the shoulders of the Bucs defense.

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The soft zone they played against Houston in the final minutes cost them a critical victory. The fact that two defensive backs and two linebackers were clueless enough to allow a 267-pound tight end to tiptoe past them for a 30-yard gain on fourth and inches in the fourth quarter against Indianapolis on Sunday is also an indictment of the coaching.

Bowles has a fine resume as a defensive coordinator, and he didn’t suddenly turn dopey this fall. No more than Bill Belichick has in New England. The problem is that there is no sense of growth. Or accountability. Or direction.

Todd Bowles has always been a good defensive mind, but that unit has taken a step back this season.
Todd Bowles has always been a good defensive mind, but that unit has taken a step back this season. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

Devin White once looked like a budding superstar but has regressed the past two seasons. Carlton Davis and Jamel Dean were signed to big contract extensions, but are struggling in the current defensive system. Joe Tryon-Shoyinka has never really progressed as a first-round pick and neither has Logan Hall.

Maybe Bowles and his staff are to blame, or maybe the front office is at fault. Maybe it’s all on the shoulders of the players. More likely than not, it’s a combination of all three.

No matter who deserves the lion’s share of guilt, the reality is that the NFL is the ultimate results-oriented business. When a team loses, fans get angry. When fans get angry, owners get concerned. And when owners get concerned, someone loses their job.

The current trajectory of this season does not bode well for Bowles’ future employment in Tampa Bay. The fact that he had a 24-40 record as a head coach in New York makes it difficult to argue that he is a victim of circumstance in Tampa Bay. It may be true, but it’s a tough case to prove.

At this point, the issue is probably beyond incremental gains. Showing signs of promise for 2024 is not enough.

The Bucs need to win games, and they’re running out of time.

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

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