As the seconds ticked off from yet another Bucs loss to another lousy team, a startling revelation dawned on me. Its not that this is a young team trying to find their way. Its not that the Bucs have let games slip away that they should win. They're a poorly coached football team that is playing terrible football. Its been that way all season, only the offense - led by rookie QB Jameis Winston - has masked a lot of it.
It got me thinking - how much better are the Bucs under Lovie Smith after two seasons?
- Let's start with the facts. In 2014, the Buccaneers played in one of the worst divisions in football in NFL history, won by a team that only won 7 games. They were winless against their divisional foes and finished with the league's worst record. This season, they've played one of the weakest schedules in the league. They played only 4 teams on their schedule with a winning record (six games total since they play Atlanta and Carolina twice).
The Bucs are 4-6 against teams with a losing record. Assuming they complete this season's collapse and lose in Carolina, they will be 2-4 against teams with winning records (both of those wins at the expense of Atlanta).
The Bucs lost at home 42-7 to the worst team in the NFL, the Tennessee Titans. The Bucs were considered playoff hopefuls because they played three teams that were already out of the chase in New Orleans, St. Louis and Chicago - two of those games on their home turf. They lost all three.
In fact, Tampa Bay is on a 1-4 skid - with only one of those games coming against a winning team.
What I'm saying folks is the Bucs aren't losing to the Panthers, Cardinals, Patriots or Packers here. They're losing to the Rams. The Bears. The Titans and Saints. Bad football teams that you have no business losing games against.
These are the kind of schedules that are mocked and doubted; like Raheem Morris' 10-6 season which has always come with the asterisk, "Yeah, look at that schedule they played."
Yet against these types of schedules in back-to-back seasons, the Bucs have gone an abysmal 8-23. Even more damning - they're 3-13 at home under Lovie. Think about that. 3 and 13.
- Now you can say that Lovie inherited a crap factory from Greg Schiano. That might be true. The team didn't have a quarterback. Only had Vincent Jackson and Doug Martin (who had been injured) and a defense that boasted three all-pros in Gerald McCoy, Lavonte David and Darrelle Revis. Yet even with those obstacles and a ridiculous amount of off-the-field distractions, Greg Schiano managed to win 4 games in his final season.
His defense was 17th in the league and surrendered 24.3 points per game. They had won 4-of-5 before dropping their last three games. The offense was indeed terrible under rookie Mike Glennon, finishing dead last in the league in yards and 30th in scoring. Yet the year before, when Josh Freeman still has it somewhat together, Tampa Bay finished 9th in the NFL in yards and 13th in scoring.
So Lovie Smith took that team, dismantled it - completely tearing apart a decent offensive line and turning them into one of the worst in the NFL. Only a handful of Buccaneers remain on the roster that were holdovers from the Schiano era. Darrelle Revis wasn't good enough to be on this team. Niether was Mark Barron. They didn't fit Lovie's system.
Pro Bowlers Gerald McCoy, Lavonte David and Alterraun Verner (who came over from Tennessee) apparently can't play in this system - at least not the way we saw them play under their previous coaches. Johnthan Banks was turning into a very solid corner until the system got him, too.
Suddenly, the Bucs were fielding a team of undrafted free agents, Bears and Cowboys rejects. Yet, even with all of these guys who apparently know THE SYSTEM - they can't cover anyone.
The stats look better, though. The Bucs are ranked 10th on defense. We all wanted a top ten defense didn't we? Does anyone truly believe the statistics? Especially when the Bucs are tied for 23rd in scoring defense? Lovie's year two Bucs gave up more points than Schiano's year two Bucs.
- Offensively, you can't question the improvement. A lot of that credit goes to offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter and rookie stud QB Jameis Winston. Yet, you can't discount Lovie in this improvement. He hired Koetter. He and Bucs GM Jason Licht drafted Jameis, Donovan Smith and Ali Marpet. They also drafted Mike Evans.
The Bucs are 7th in the NFL on offense, averaging 22.1 points per game. Doug Martin remains in contention for the rushing title. Jameis has set franchise rookie records and has a chance to have one of the best rookie seasons for a QB in NFL history (more on that in a second).
- Yet when it comes to Lovie, I go back to him as a coach. Since taking the Bears to the Super Bowl in 2006, his teams have made the playoffs once in the last 9 years. Think about that for a second. One trip to the post-season in nearly a decade. Even Jeff Fisher - Mr. 8-8 - has taken teams to the playoffs more times in that span.
And there in is the scary part for the Glazers. Has the improvement been enough? This is the same ownership group that fired Tony Dungy after a playoff game. They fired Jon Gruden after a 9-3 start because he lost 4 straight to end the season. They fired Raheem's 4-2 (coming off a 10-6 year, mind you) team collapsed to 4-12. They fired Schiano after losing their last three games. Losing in December doesn't show improvement.
The sad truth is Greg Schiano won more games than Lovie in his two years as coach. Raheem had a boatload more victories. Hell, Sam Wyche and Ray Perkins did better. In fact, only three coaches in Bucs history won less in their first two years than Smith has. John McKay, who was working with an expansion team had one less win than Lovie, Leeman Bennett (the worst coach in franchise history) and Richard Williamson (who only got one season).
Add to that the frustration of seeing other franchises that were just as bad as Tampa Bay turn it around more quickly. Houston, in their second season under Bill O'Brien, is a win away from securing their second winning season and a division championship. Jay Gruden's Washington franchise has won their division in just their second season under his leadership (and dealing with the clusterfudge that was the RGIII fiasco).
Todd Bowles in his first season as New York Jets coach has them poised to make the playoffs with 10 wins (two more than Lovie's amassed in two years). In Dan Quinn's first season, he's matched Lovie's two-year total and is poised to give the Falcons a winning season for the first time since 2012. Bruce Arians inherited a 5 win Cardinals team and has won 10, 11, and 13 games in consecutive seasons.
The point is - the Bucs should be closer than this.
- So let's talk continuity. The prevailing feeling is you can't fire coaches every one or two years and expect to ever get better. A prime example of patience working - Ron Rivera - coach of the Panthers. He won 6 games and 7 games respectively his first two seasons and the Panthers have now won 3 straight NFC South titles - the first team in the divison's history to accomplish that feat.
Only, Rivera's teams always saved his job by finish seasons strong, with long win streaks. Lovie's Buc teams have gone 1-7 in December (on their way to 1-8).
The flip side of that is Jeff Fisher. Fisher is in his fourth season as head coach and the franchise has once again missed the playoffs. Fisher, like Rivera, has his team tantalize with late season surges that keep you from cutting ties. Yet they've never won more than 7 games in a season.
A better case study is Gus Bradley. Bradley's Jaguars won 7 games in his first two seasons - but because the team drafted a young QB in Blake Bortles, ownership decided to give him one more season. The result? Jacksonville is guaranteed their 8th straight non-winning season, 5th straight double-digit losing season. If Bradley survives, it will be a miracle.
Another example of firing a guy quickly. Todd Haley got 2 1/2 seasons with the Chiefs before getting canned. Romeo Crennel got one season with the Chiefs before getting the ax. Then they hired Andy Reid and have been in the playoffs two of the last three years.
Continuity for the sake of continuity doesn't lead to success, just as much as changing coaches every year doesn't work. The key is to find the RIGHT guy to lead the team.
- I'm not saying the Glazers should fire Lovie. I'm okay if they bring him back. However, I'll say this - if the Bucs lose Dirk Koetter to another team as a head coach - then keeping Lovie is pointless. Continuity will be lost for Jameis and frankly Dirk Koetter and the offense may be the only thing Lovie can point to and say - hey, look there. Give us time. We're getting better. it certainly isn't his defense - which he was brought in to fix.
No one really knows what the Glazers are thinking. Sure, we all think Lovie's safe. Even with major publications like Pewter Report calling for his head and fishwraps like the Tampa Bay Times wondering outwardly if he should come back, most (including myself) felt that if Lovie got this team to 6 wins he'd be safe for 2016.
Yet that was before we realized the horribly crappy schedule the Bucs faced this year. It was before this team ended the season with a (presumed) 1-5 swoon. As I said before, the Glazers don't look kindly to bad finishes.
We all figured Jon Gruden was safe as well until the Glazers saw Raheem Morris get an interview with Denver.
If the Glazers feel the threat of losing Dirk Koetter, they could pull the trigger on Lovie and elevate Koetter to head coach. Unlike Gruden, no one would really bat an eye at it.
Now, is Dirk Koetter qualified to be an NFL head coach? Like Bruce Arians and Mike Zimmer before him, he's been a candidate for coaching gigs for a while. He's had nine years as an offensive coordinator in the NFL and he seems to command the respect of his players on that side of the ball.
He does have 9 years of head coaching experience, albeit in college, where he posted a 110-66 record at Boise State and Arizona State. In other words, he's more qualified than Greg Schiano or Raheem Morris ever was. His greatest skillset is he adapts his system around the talent he has - he doesn't try to toss away good players to find system players.
The Bucs could do worse than Koetter and they keep that offensive consistency intact for Jameis' continued growth. Its something the Glazers should think long and hard about.
- When we look back on the 2015 season, there will be two prevailing themes. The Bucs are great at beating themselves and they are a mentally weak football team. Nothing was more illustrative of that than the sequence in the second quarter with the Bucs up 7-0. Tampa Bay got an interception by William Gholston on a batted pass, who rumbled to the Bears' 15 yard line. Point blank range for the Bucs to at least get 3 and possibly a soul crushing 14-0 lead for a Chicago team ready to pack it in for the year.
Instead, a selfish, stupid facemask penalty on Verner wiped out the pick. The Bucs' defense responded by caving in like a bunch of emo Darth Vader wannabes. The Bears proceeded to waltz down the field, score a touchdown and basically own the game from there.
The penalty hurt them - but their reaction to the penalty is what beat them. It shouldn't take an entire quarter to recover from a bad break. That's what I'm talking about when I'm referencing mentally weak football. There was no reason to cave. Okay, bad break - forget about it and go make another damned play. Instead, we got "Woe is us, man we have no luck, golly gee, we're doomed," and sure enough, they were.
- Jameis Winston missed on two crucial deep balls that could have been game changing plays. Yes, the throws weren't perfect. That's what happens when Demar Dotson whiffs on his block and watches a defensive lineman crush his quarterback. However, at some point, the Bucs receivers have to make a damned play on the ball. We saw it all day yesterday. Julio Jones high points an underthrown pass by Matt Ryan and turns it into a touchdown. Larry Fitzgerald did the same thing for a score against Green Bay. Not the best thrown ball in the world by Carson Palmer, but he made a play on the ball.
Josh McCown wasn't a great deep ball thrower, but Mike Evans made him look better than he was last year by using his tremendous height advantage to sky over receivers and make plays on the football. We've rarely seen that out of him this season. Jameis has to be pinpoint accurate for Evans to make a big play.
I wondered if Evans had some sort of injury that was preventing him leaping up to get the ball, but then a play later he did it to secure a first down on a shorter pass. So he's not hurt.
Jameis also sliced a ball to Dontae Dye that yes, was a difficult catch, but could have been caught. The ball was there.
Memo to Bucs receivers - make a damn play on the ball. Deep balls are 50-50 propositions anyway. Most NFL quarterbacks will lead it a little too far or leave it a tiny bit short. Its up to the receiver to adjust downfield and make a play on the football.
Could Jameis have been more accurate on those throws? Sure. Could the receivers have made a better attempt at the catch? Definitely.
- Let's end this diatribe on a very positive note. Jameis Winston is having one of the best season's for a rookie quarterback in NFL history. He's alread re-written the Bucs' rookie record books. According to the Tampa Bay Times' Greg Auman, if Winston throws for 23 yards, he'll pass Peyton Manning for the third most passing yards by a rookie in NFL history. If he throws two touchdowns against Carolina, he will pass Andrew Luck for the third most touchdown passes by a rookie in NFL History. If he throws for 283 yards, he will be only the third rookie in NFL history to throw for 4,000 yards in his rookie season, joining Andrew Luck and Cam Newton. If he has a monster day, throwing for 4 touchdown passes, he will tie Peyton Manning and Russell Wilson's rookie touchdown passes record.
Jameis has been everything the Bucs could possibly have hoped for when they made him the first overall pick in the NFL draft. Certainly, he has a ways to go to become the superstar we hope he'll become but the baseline he's established is something special. Great job, rookie.