Well, that sure was an interesting finale at Ray Jay on Sunday wasn't it? With his team finally playing the way he wanted them to all season, Lovie Smith pulls his starters to look at young players.
Did he learn anything? Who knows?
But here's what we learned -
1. The Bucs players did not tank the game. When on the football field, each and every Buccaneer gave the team and their fans everything they had. The royal backside whupping they gave the Saints in the first half was evidence of that. Now the coaches? That's another story. Are you telling me that after training camp, pre-season and 16 weeks of NFL football you still aren't sure what you have with your young guys? Right. Okay. So tell me again how you're going to see how these young wide receivers perform when you attempt 3 passes in the second half? Yes, just three passes. It was almost comical when Fox cameras caught Bucs GM Jason Licht with a scowl on his face as the Bucs were taking the Saints to the woodshed.
You can imagine the call at half-time.
Jason: Uh Lovie, what the hell are you doing?
Lovie: Jason, do you see the guys flying around out there? We're playing some great Buc ball! Evans is finally back on track, we're running at will and our defense is dominating Drew Brees!
Jason: Lovie, you remember we need to lose this game to secure the first overall pick, right?
Lovie: Did you see that pick McDougald pulled off? Mark Barron's hands of stone couldn't have done that!
Jason: Lovie, we'll have the opportunity to have our choice of players in the draft. We can start negotiating with Mariota or Winston's agent as soon as they declare.
Lovie: And how about the Dougernaut? Damn, it looked like his rookie season again. Hell, even Charles "2.0" Sims is killing them!
Jason: LOVIE! For the love of God, put in Garrett Gilkey and Josh Allen! Pull Lavonte and Evans. I don't want to see Banks, Verner or anyone worth a damn take the field in the second half. I don't even know the names of half the guys we've brought in the last couple weeks. Put 'em all in. In fact. Take a knee on offense, every single play.
Lovie: We can't do that!
Jason: Okay, okay. Run the ball every single fricking play on offense. With Gilkey and Allen in there its just like a kneel down.
From Vincent Jackson's mysterious groin injury after getting over the 1,000 yard threshold to Mike Evans being gassed (what, we have another 13 weeks of lousy football after this one?), I think we all understood what happened out there in the second half. Was it the right thing to do? Probably. How many Bucs fans were freaking out at halftime? The tweets were hilarious, one even saying "WE CAN'T EVEN LOSE RIGHT!"
Honestly, if there ever was a game NOT to win, it was this one. 2-14, 3-13, either way it was a horrible season. Having the first overall pick in the draft almost makes this dumpster fire of a season worth it. Almost.
Sure, they tanked in the second half of the game. But then again, they've been tanking all season, haven't they? The folks in Tennessee are calling for an investigation. Right. The NFL won't do that. Besides, all Lovie has to do is point to how many times the Bucs have blown double-digit second half leads this season.
And to be honest, this isn't the first time Lovie has sat on a lead. Then you have all those playoff teams who rested their starters and the other losing teams who "looked at their youngsters". That's a Pandora's Box the NFL certainly doesn't want to open.
2. In a season of misery and things going wrong, there was one bright spot and that's for the first time in franchise history, the Buccaneers have two wide receivers go for 1,000 yards in one season. I'm not sure anyone expected Mike Evans to have this type of breakout rookie season. Its been an odd year for rookie wideouts. Typically, it takes a while for rookie receivers to figure out what their doing, but Evans was a monster all season. In addition to nabbing 68 receptions for 1,051 yards, he also set the franchise record for touchdown receptions with 12.
The wily veteran Jackson posted his six 1,000 yard receiving yards season in the last seven years and his third straight since becoming a Buccaneer. Even though his touchdowns were the lowest since his rookie year, Jackson continues to be the consumate pro and a great mentor to young Evans.
Here's hoping the Bucs can find a way to work something out with Jackson so he can remain in pewter and red.
3. Doug Martin had his first 100 yard rushing day since September 15, 2013. Congrats to him. Its been a long, tough season for Martin playing behind perhaps the worst offensive line in Buccaneer history. Many have given up on him, especially after he's averaged 3.7 yards a carry and didn't break 500 yards on the year. Still, he's shown that given a tiny sliver of a hole, he can still be the Dougernaut. I personally don't think the Bucs should give up on him. I know Lovie believes Sims might be the answer and Bobby Rainey is still on the roster (although he'll be a restricted free agent), the Bucs may still have some answers other than Martin on the roster. I still think there's hope for him and I hope he returns in 2015.
4. While the big names of the free agency class in Michael Johnson, Anthony Collins and Josh McCown all spit the bed, Jason Licht can certainly hang his hat on a few guys like Danny Lansanah and Bradley McDougald. The latter was a young player that was plucked off waivers from the Kansas City Chiefs by previous Bucs GM Mark Dominik. Licht liked what he saw from young McDougald and retained his services and now he's emerging as a very solid safety for Tampa Bay. Since being inserted into the starting lineup for the injured Major Wright, McDougald has been outstanding supporting the run, solid in coverage and showed some great ball skills in securing his first career interception on Sunday. If he can build upon this season, Tampa Bay may have found a quality starter in a crucial position in their secondary.
5. We have six months to debate what the Bucs should do with the first overall pick. As you know, I'm #TeamMariota. More importantly for Lovie Smith's coaching future is what he decides to do at the offensive coordinator spot. Marcus Arroyo assuredly won't be back as the play caller (and perhaps not as the quarterbacks coach), so this may be the biggest hire of Smith's coaching career. He can't fail again. If he does, he may never get another head coaching gig in the NFL. No, Lovie has to get this one right. We know Jim Harbaugh is done in San Francisco and if the Niners decide to go with an offensive minded coach, that means San Francisco Offensive Coordinator Greg Roman should become available. Roman was a hot head coaching candidate after overseeing the emergence of Colin Kaepernick but with the Niner quarterback's decline, he's taking a lot of heat. Roman's offense fits Lovie's run first mentality but brings enough elements of a spread to be effective for a quarterback like Mariota or Winston.
It looks like Mike Smith and his staff may get the axe in Atlanta, meaning Falcons OC Dirk Koetter could be cut loose. of course, Koetter has been rumored as a potential head coaching candidate so the Falcons could very well just promote him to the big chair or he may take another head coaching job in the league. But if he is available, the Bucs could have themselves an imaginitive play caller with experience working with big receivers and a young quarterback. Offense certainly wasn't the problem in Atlanta, where they finished ranked 8th in total offense. (Update: The Falcons indeed have fired Mike Smith)
Then, of course, there's the Bears connection in Marc Trestman. If he's fired in Chicago, we know he's the QB whisperer. Hell, if he can get Josh McCown to have a 13 TDs-to-1 INT ratio then he's a magician.
6. Keep an eye on Cowboys' Defensive Coordinator Rod Marinelli as well. Rod is very close with Lovie and wanted to leave for Tampa Bay last season, but the Cowboys used their club option to keep him tied to the organization. As of this writing, Marinelli has not signed an extension and will be a free agent at season's end. Marinelli is certainly well known to long time Bucs fans, the fiery defensive line coach during the Dungy and Gruden years. He's done a great job in Dallas working with a defense that has half the talent the Bucs have and improving them from 32nd overall to 19th (15th in scoring defense). Lovie settled for Leslie Frazier and the defense has slowly improved under his tutelage but even the Dallas Cowboys website believes Frazier just kept the seat warm for Marinelli. Of course, Jerry Jones has more money than God and can back up the Brinks truck to retain Marinelli so until he's here, he's not here.
7. Tampa Bay lost every home game this season. Its something this organization hasn't "accomplished" since their expansion season of 1976. The Bucs also set a franchise record for home losses in a season with 8 as in 1976 they only played 14 games, 7 at home. That's where you start, folks. At home. Find a way to win at Ray Jay. Its not like Tampa Bay was blown out every single home game. In six of their eight games at the Pirate Ship, the Bucs held second half leads. Had they held on, won those games and posted a 6-2 record at home, they would have won the NFC South. Instead, they have the dubious distinction of being the first team since the expansion team to not win a single home game. Of the playoff field in 2014, only two (Dallas and Carolina) did not post winning home records. The other ten did not lose more than two home games on the year. It just solidifies the old football adage of win most of your home games, split your road games and you're going to stand a good chance of making the playoffs.
Until the Bucs can win at Ray Jay and win consistently, that won't happen.
8. We've talked about it all season - the offensive line. That's really the area that caused this team to go down the crapper. Ted Larsen is starting for playoff bound Arizona. Jeremy Zuttah is starting for playoff bound Baltimore. Neither were good enough to play in Tampa Bay under Lovie Smith. Donald Penn had a decent year startng for Oakland and Davin Joseph started several games for St. Louis. Meanwhile, the Bucs churned and churned their roster looking for somebody - anybody - who could block for long enough for them to execute their offense.
Unfortunately, barring cap related cuts, the Bucs aren't going to like their options in free agency. 49ers guard Mike Iupati will be the cream of the crop. Still young at age 27 with multiple Pro Bowls on his resume, he will likely become the highest paid player at his position. We all know the Bucs aren't afraid of dropping some benjamins but Dashon Goldson's bad experience with the Bucs could taint their efforts to secure the young All-Pro. Other options at guard could be Patriots guard Dan Conolly and Ravens guard Orlando Franklin.
Pickings are slimmer at tackle. Michael Roos will likely be the top tackle on the market but he's 32. After that, you're talking about guys like King Dunlap, Brian Bell, 30 yr old Doug Free and oft-injured Bryan Bulaga.
Of course, any of those guys are upgrades over the likes of Oneil Cousins and Patrick Omameh.
The draft isn't considered particularly strong for offensive line this year either. There's no slam dunk Joe Thomas types.
9. The Bucs' 2-14 finish is their worst since 1986. Think about that for a moment, folks. Ray Perkins' teams never went 2-14. Richard Williamson's only season as Bucs coach, he still went 3-13. Sam Wyche's teams were never worse than 5-11. Raheem and his stripped, youngry roster went 3-13. Schiano managed 4 wins despite his quarterback situation imploding, team revolting and a MRSA outbreak. Add to the fact the Bucs went winless against the worst division in football. They were the worst team in the league's worst divsion against the weakest schedule among the losers.
This season was unacceptable. Somehow, Lovie will likely survive this shibacle. But Coach Smith, be advised you are on notice. This can't happen again.
10. The interesting thing about Lovie's coaching tenure is typically his teams bounce back from losing seasons with winning ones. The Bears flipped their record from 5-11 to 11-5 in his second season. When they dipped to 7-9 in 2007, they bounced back with a 9-7 the next year. In 2009, again Chicago slipped to 7-9 but came back with an 11-5 record and a berth in the NFC Championship game. Finally, in 2011 the Bears dropped to 8-8 before bouncing back in Lovie's final season at 10-6.
In whatever quarterback they choose, Tampa Bay will be selling hope. Hope for the future of the franchise with their new shiny toy at QB, hope that this veteran coach can turn this thing around quickly with a multitude of high draft picks and hopefully better free agent choices.
Then, as Sander pointed out, there's only three playoff teams on the Bucs schedule heading into next season. We talked about how important it is to win your home games. Other than their three NFC South rivals, the Bucs face one team - the Dallas Cowboys - on their home schedule that had more than six wins.
Of course, while you're circling those easy wins just remember, the fanbases of those teams are cicling the Bucs as well. Considering how putrid this team was in 2014, who can blame them?