As has so often been the case the past years, this game had two different halves and two different stories. The first half was nothing short of embarrassing: the Cowboys jumped out to a 28-0 lead as the Bucs failed to produce more than one first down in the half. But in the second half, the Bucs suddenly showed up to play. They scored 15 points and held the Cowboys' offense to just three, opening the door for an unlikely comeback - a door that quickly fell shut again.
It didn't take long for the first half to turn sour. Four plays in Josh Freeman scrambled - and then subsequently reminded everyone why you don't want your quarterback scrambling constantly by fumbling the ball. The Cowboys took very little time to drive downfield, and Tony Romo found Miles Austin in the endzone. On their next drive, Dez Bryant got to catch the ball completely unguarded in the endzone and Laurent Robinson earned that privilege two drives later. To make the humiliation complete, Romo scored a touchdown on a QB sneak.
In between all that incompetence, the Bucs managed one first down and forced one punt. Meanwhile the Cowboys had a whopping 19 first downs and had forced four punts and a turnover. At the end of the half the score was Cowboys 28 Buccaneers 0. Yeah, it wasn't a good first half. In fact, it was so disastrous that the halftime announcers were talking about players mentally checking out and quitting.
But then the Bucs gave the fans a tiny ray of hope as the second half got underway.
For about one quarter the Bucs looked like a competent team again. On third-and-19 Adrian Clayborn beat Doug Free and swatted the ball out of Tony Romo's hands. Dekoda Watson picked it up and ran it in for a touchdown. On the ensuing drive the Bucs defense held the Cowboys to a field goal and gave the ball back to Josh Freeman.
And Freeman showed us why he was so widely praised after the 2010 season. He directed a 12-play, 75-yard drive capped off by a touchdown pass to Dezmon Briscoe, and a two-point conversion to Kellen Winslow. On that drive Josh Freeman looked accurate, decisive, comfortable in the pocket and he consistently made the right decisions.
Unfortunately that was as far as it got for the Bucs. While the defense held up its end of the bargain by forcing a relatively quick punt, Freeman couldn't repeat his trick for a second time as penalties, inaccuracy and barely adequate receiver play stopped the Bucs from getting any further than midfield. And while the defense once again forced a punt, the offense and Freeman in particular looked to be in complete disarray on its final drive of the game - when Freeman threw a bunch of short passes when he needed to get the team down the field quickly.
And so ended the eighth consecutive loss of the 2011 season for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. A completely incompetent first half followed by about a quarter of competitive football, and then another series of penalties and stupid mistakes in the fourth quarter. The Bucs' season in a nutshell.