It was right there. The season was ready to turn around and the Bucs were about to erase the bad taste they had in their mouths from Atlanta a few weeks ago. The Bucs had built a 31-20 lead in the fourth quarter - their quarter - and looked to finish this improbable road trip with a two game winning streak.
Then, the defense which had played so hard the first three quarters collapsed. The offense imploded with penalties and the Bucs squandered their lead and opportunity to go 2-3 on the season.
Now, instead of being back in the race in the NFC South, Tampa Bay is 1-4, but even more importantly, 0-3 in a really porous division.
It was a tough one to take...but did we learn anything new from this heartbreaking defeat?
1. We learned Sunday that Bucs fans have set in the loser mentality. On twitter and in the forums we heard a lot of "At least they were competitive" and "Well, they were close". No, folks...no. In the NFL, they don't ask how, they ask how many. And that's in reference to wins. It's a results based business and at the end of the day, no one really remembers the scores, they remember who won. The sad truth is, the Buccaneers lost. Whether it was by 2 or 42, it doesn't really matter. Even worse, the four teams the Bucs lost to are terrible, too. The Falcons and Rams haven't won a game since beating Tampa Bay. Carolina was blown out twice and were getting crushed again before Jay Cutler and the Bears let them comeback. The Saints...we saw how bad they are first hand. Yet the Bucs found ways to lose to these teams. So what does that make the Tampa Bay Buccaneers of 2014? A really bad football team, folks.
I'm sorry if I can't jump on the sunshine and rainbows bandwagon here. It's not better. The Bucs lost to a poor team...again.
2. It felt like the Bucs defense made a step in the right direction didn't it? Of course, that's crazy given they surrendered 37 points and 511 yards of total offense but it certainly felt different. The Bucs were pressuring Drew Brees into McCown-esque errors, hitting him six times and forcing three interceptions, one returned for a touchdown. A Tampa Bay secondary that managed just 7 passes defended all season, put together 11 with Alterran Verner leading the way with 3. Mark Barron was all over the football field, with two pass defensed and covering Jimmy Graham (when he was in there). Verner also had his hands on two other interceptions but couldn't pull them in.
The Bucs defense didn't play poorly in my opinion, they just ran out of gas. New Orleans was on the field for 86 plays. Yes, 86! The defense kept the Bucs in the ballgame in the first half while the offense struggled to find itself. Unfortunately, they weren't able to close. The last drive was painful to watch as a team that has prided itself on its conditioning simply had nothing left to give. Even then, they had held the Saints and forced a punt, only to see a defensive holding penalty continue the drive (more on that in the next point). You could see after that penalty, there was simply nothing left for this defense.
Add to that this is Tampa Bay's 3rd straight road game, it begins to wear on you.
In the old classic cover 2 days, it was said if you got the Tampa Bay defense into 60 plays, they begin to lose their effectiveness. The Saints had 49 plays in the second half and overtime alone.
3. Penalties. Oh the penalties. They were crushing weren't they? In the first half, the Bucs had 75 yards of offense wiped out on 3 penalties - plays that would have put them in prime scoring position. The Saints had their drive extended 5 times thanks to penalties, including a crushing one in overtime when it appeared the Bucs would get off the field and give their offense a chance to win the game.
There were 15 in all, each feeling as if they came at the worst possible moment. We saw Pittsburgh self destruct in similar fashion last week, this week the Bucs decided to test themselves by doing the same. You can't make that many penalities and expect to beat the New Orleans Saints in the Superdome. You can't take away huge plays on offense and you can't help sustain drives against Drew Brees on defense with terrible penalties.
I will add this, though. Apparently, if you're wearing a Fleur-de-lis on your helmet, you're immune to holding calls at the Superdome. On the last two of the Saints touchdowns, Gerald McCoy was literally ridden to the ground. On a big pass play in the fourth quarter where Drew Brees escaped the rush and fired a strike down field, Michael Johnson was literally tackled by an offensive lineman. No calls were made.
I'm not a penalty whiner but I do demand the officials call it down the middle. If Logan Mankins and Demar Dotson can be called for holding late in the fourth quarter, so can the Saints offensive linemen.
4. This loss cannot be pinned on Mike Glennon. Glennon was excellent in this game. Yes, excellent. Despite being victimized by drops (looking at you ASJ), penalties and basically the team around him imploding the kid was steady, stoic and completed 19 of 32 for 249 and 2 touchdowns. One play that was thoroughly amazing occurred on the first play of the fourth quarter, with the Bucs clinging to a 24-20 lead and facing 2nd and 20 (thanks to another Bucs penalty) Glennon, scrambling out of trouble, looking like he might run and then he spotted a wide open Vincent Jackson and delivered a rifle shot to V-Jax who set the Bucs up at the Saints 10 yard line. They would score a couple plays later.
Until Logan Mankins got nailed for holding, it looked like the Bucs were about to march down the field for last second heroics once again but the penalty wiped out 9 yard reception at the 43 yard line and set the Bucs back 1st-and-20 at their own 26.
That was Glennon's day, really. 32 yard screen play to the New Orleans 36 wiped out by an illegal formation penalty on tackle Anthony Collins for not lining up properly. A 27 yard pass play wiped out by an illegal shift. A 21 yard pass play to the New Orleans 12 yard line wiped out by a facemask penalty on ASJ.
Then of course, there's the implosion drive. 1st and ten from the 20, leading 31-26 and 9:28 left on the clock. Demar Dotson, holding. Now it's 1st and 20 from the ten. EDS' snap hits Vincent Jackson coming in motion, luckily the Bucs recover the fumble, back to the 2 yard line. A weird delay of game penalty where it looked like the Bucs had called time out. They didn't. Back to the 1 yd line. False start on the tackle eligible. Pushes it back to the half yard line. The Bucs finally excute a play, a run by Doug Martin for no gain where he narrowly escaped the goal line. Then an ole' block in the endzone allows Junior Gallette a free run at Glennon. Some how the kid didn't fumble. Only the delay is on Glennon. The rest of it was his team falling apart around him.
Both Glennon and Josh McCown have played about the same amount of time (two and half games). I think Glennon has clearly demonstrated by his production and his protection of the football that he is the quarterback of the now for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Is he the future? Time will tell. Glennon looks much improved to me. I hope Lovie plays this smart and lets us really see what we have in the galloping giraffe.
5. I'm ready to move on from Doug Martin. I know, Doug was the bellcow of the 2012 season, beasting his way to 1,454 yards and 11 touchdowns. He's not that guy anymore. If ever there was a game for Martin to show up it would be against the lowly Saints run defense. The Saints can't stop anyone on the ground. Yet Tampa Bay was held to a paltry 66 yards rushing and 3.1 yards a carry. Why did the Saints get 86 plays from offense? Because the Bucs couldn't play keep away with their running game. In fact, the only time the Bucs offense has looked decent in the running game was when Doug Martin was on the bench.
I know Bobby Rainey has a propensity to cough up the rock, but until Charles Sims returns, he's the best back on the Bucs roster. Martin is running with no confidence - in fact, several times he stopped completely, showing none of the vision, decision making and burst he had as a rookie.
I don't know if Schiano ran him into the ground his rookie season, but right now he's not the guy. He's played three games and has managed 94 yards in those three games averaging 2.5 yards a carry.
That folks, is unacceptable. The Bucs can't win that way.
6. Has Arroyo's play calling improved? Considering the big plays wiped out by penalty on Sunday, I'd say yes. While the Bucs mustered only 314 yards against the godawful Saints defense, Tampa Bay left a lot of yards on the field. Arroyo remained aggressive and showed the ability to adapt his gameplan when the Saints obviously began run blitzing on every first down. They were not going to allow Tampa Bay to run the football on first down and it showed after the first few drives. Instead, Arroyo went to play action and in the second quarter, the Bucs offense began to move.
Tampa Bay outscored the Saints 31-7 after falling behind 13-0 and appeared to have taken complete control of the ballgame. Again, what happened in the fourth quarter wasn't Arroyo's fault, either. He stayed aggressive but his team dropped passes and committed penalties. They truly beat themselves. Since the second half of the Steelers game, it appears Lovie has taken the training wheels off Arroyo and he's doing better.
7. Let's welcome Vincent Jackson to the 2014 NFL season. After a month of producing pretty much nothing, V-Jax finally showed up big for the Bucs, nabbing 8 receptions for 144 yards and a much more Vincent Jackson-eque 18 yards a reception. Nice to have you back, Action Jackson.
8. I want to believe in you ASJ, but you were downright pitiful in this game. Two huge drops that would have extended drives, then a horrible facemask penalty that wiped out a big play. Poor blocking in the run game. Just bad, very bad football by Austin Sefarian-Jenkins. I still have hopes that this amazingly skilled behemoth will figure it out and become a crucial piece to the Bucs offensive puzzle. Sunday was not that day.
9. There are whispers that Drew Brees isn't the quarterback he once was and I see it now. Each of the three interceptions by the future Hall of Famer were unforgivable for a veteran of his ilk. He should have been picked off two other times by Alterraun Verner. Yes, Brees finished with monster numbers, he always does. But when the Saints looked to finish off the Bucs in overtime, they turned to their running game against a wiped-out Bucs defense and not their superstar QB, running the ball five of the last six plays of their game winning drive.
Brees definitely doesn't seem to have much on his deep ball any more. If not for some drive extending penalties on the Bucs defense, Brees could have been wearing the Goat for an entirely different reason than "Greatest of All Time".
10. The opportunity lost in this one is what really hurts. Had the Bucs won this game, they would have finished the three game road trip 2-1 and still be just a game out of 1st in the NFC South. Instead, they are buried at the bottom of the divison with three division losses and four conference defeats and AFC North leader Baltimore coming into Raymond James Stadium. Any thoughts of a turnaround seem foolhardy now. Yes folks, that's the difference between winning and losing and why there are no moral victories in the National Football League.
BONUS - Michael Koenen. Go away and take your multi-million dollar cap hit with you.