Bucs-Panthers: After another loss, does Jon Gruden really want to return?

Panthers quarterback Cam Newton reacts after scoring the winning touchdown, picking up a fumbled snap in the shotgun and running 2 yards up the middle. The Bucs fell to 4-11.  [Getty Images]
Panthers quarterback Cam Newton reacts after scoring the winning touchdown, picking up a fumbled snap in the shotgun and running 2 yards up the middle. The Bucs fell to 4-11. [Getty Images]
Published Dec. 24, 2017

An open letter to Jon Gruden

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — That's right, this is a dear Jon letter.

It seems like a good time to write you, Coach Gruden, after the Bucs just lost another heartbreaker, this time 22-19 to the Carolina Panthers. You always called them the North Carolina Panthers. Same guys, man.

Grumor has it you are considering leaving ESPN's Monday Night Football to return to the sideline. There was a report Sunday that you are even checking in with some of your former assistants to see if they are available.

That's a lot of smoke, and frankly, Dirk Koetter's head coaching seat with the Bucs is hot enough to start a fire.

The word is, if Koetter is dismissed after next Sunday's season finale against the Saints, you would have a real interest in coaching the Bucs again.

Let me take a few minutes to tell you what you would be getting yourself into.

This isn't anything like the Bucs team you took over in 2002 from Tony Dungy. You deserve all the credit in the world for winning Super Bowl XXXVII. You're in the Ring of Honor. So don't take this the wrong way. But this 2017 Bucs team doesn't have a championship defense like that one did.

This Bucs defense had the best team in the NFC South on the ropes and then they took off the gloves. Started catching punches with their face.

Five times the Bucs have had the lead or been tied in the fourth quarter this season. They won one of them.

It happened again Sunday at Bank of America Stadium.

The Bucs were up 19-15 with 3:05 to play and the ball on the Panthers 31-yard line. It was fourth and 7. Koetter tried to make it a seven-point lead. But you know kickers, Jon. Remember when Martin Gramatica went from Automatica to Erratica?

Patrick Murray missed a 51-yarder wide right, just like he did on the 54-yarder that would've tied Atlanta last week. SMH. Kickers.

Anyway, Cam Newton took over at the Tampa Bay 41 and moved the Panthers like they were on skates. In four plays, they were knocking on the door. The Bucs got them to fourth and 3 at the 5-yard line.

Then defensive tackle Chris Baker jumped offsides.

Get this, right before the play he was told by Gerald McCoy and others to watch the hard snap count.

"I just got anxious and made a bad play,'' Baker said.

You may have lost a headset over that one. Jonathan Stewart (he's in your nightmares), picked up the fourth and 1. Then Newton fumbled the shotgun snap but still ran for the winning touchdown.

But I'll tell ya what, man, this Jameis Winston is a hell of a quarterback.

As you would say, he's like a ride on the SheiKra. Winston has played amazing the past two weeks. His shoulder feels healthy. He shredded the Panthers defense, going 21-of-27 for 367 yards with a touchdown and no interceptions. That's the second 130-plus rating he's had in consecutive weeks.

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"It doesn't really matter if you have those games and lose,'' Winston said. "Like I've said, some unfortunate things have happened to us.''

You've never had a young quarterback like Winston. That's got to make you want to quit the FFCA.

But Winston still has trouble protecting the football. He lost three fumbles Sunday. He was sacked six times,. He dropped a snap. He swore he recovered the fumble that ended Tampa Bay's final drive, and went nuts when the officials gave it to Julius Peppers.

He's got weapons, too. Mike Evans caught six passes for 107 yards. This rookie Chris Godwin didn't blink and had three catches for 98 yards. Oh, and they have DeSean Jackson, who was out Sunday. Somehow you got that App State receiver Dexter Jackson. The GM, Jason Licht, gets a lot of things right.

But this team doesn't know how to win. It's tough for Koetter, who may be watching his dream die.

"It's the same stuff that wins football games every week,'' Koetter said. "It's not an effort issue. It's not a hustle issue. It's not a physical issue.''

Gerald McCoy, Lavonte David and Kwon Alexander play their tails off. But there's no Sapp, Brooks and Lynch.

Anyway, who knows what happens. As you say, I don't want to get too deep and philosophical.

Have a Merry (Jiminy) Christmas.

Contact Rick Stroud at Follow @NFLStroud