In the past two days there's been a lot of talk about the Bucs facing a tough schedule. That is absolutely true: by Football Outsiders' measures, the Bucs have had the toughest schedule of any team so far. Grantland's Bill Barnwell uses Pythagorean wins to come to a similar conclusion. That kind of argument works to explain the fact that the Bucs are sitting at 4-5 with three straight losses. It explains their record and the fact that they have seemingly lost their spot in the playoffs.
What it doesn't explain is their quality of play. The Bucs faced some elite opponents last year, and were blown out by two of them: the Steelers and Saints, both early in the year. In the second half of the season the Bucs' losses were all close affairs in which they had a good chance to win it, but things didn't go their way in key moments. That's fine: that happens, and the team showed it could hang with some very good teams in what was essentially year two of a rebuilding effort.
But that hasn't been the theme for the Bucs' losses this year. Two of their losses have been close affairs, but those losses against the Lions and Bears felt a lot worse than the scoreline made them look. The other three losses, though, have been blowouts, and that's inexcusable. The Bucs have lost games to the 49ers, Saints and Texans by a combined score of 28-112.
And that's the problem here: it isn't the fact that they've lost games, it's the fashion in which they've lost games. Most dispiriting was the loss against the Texans. Losing against that team is no great shame. Even letting that team run for a lot of yardage is no shame, as the Texans have a dominant running game. But getting blown out and having several players (Sean Jones...) show a consistent lack of effort is most certainly a problem.
An even bigger issue is the progress of individual players. Josh Freeman seems to have regressed for a variety of reasons, not least of which is the lackluster play of his wide receivers: another group of young players to have regressed. The linebackers, and Quincy Black in particular, seem to be playing at a lower level than last year. And the secondary has completely collapsed despite the return of supposed star safety Tanard Jackson.
The Bucs were the youngest team in the league last year, and they still are. When you commit to a rebuilding effort, you're going to see inconsistent play - that's part of the NFL. But what you're really looking for from week to week is progression. Young players have a lot to learn, but they need to show that they're learning to play like professionals.
The Bucs aren't doing that. They're not just losing games, they're getting blown out and the players are showing no signs of improvement. That's the real problem.