Famous songwriter Neil Young wrote long ago that it’s better to burn out than fade away.
It’s a phrase that can be applied to several life paths – a call to action for living hard and fast, pushing your limits, and testing your creative horizons in pursuit of glory. It’s a philosophy that the Buccaneers should’ve embraced this season to its fullest degree with Tom Brady back for another go-around and a roster full of high-paid, top-tier talent. Instead, the coaching staff found itself treading the “safe” path over and over, and now the lofty dreams of one more Super Bowl run are on life support.
Sunday’s disheartening collapse against the Cincinnati Bengals simply emphasized a conclusion that’s largely been apparent for the last month or so: the Bucs are a bad football team that lacks creativity, discipline, and willingness to access a higher gear than neutral. Good teams rarely blow 17-point halftime leads, and good teams certainly do not allow 34 unanswered points.
Yes, there were uncharacteristic turnovers from Tom Brady and some bad luck, but even then the logical faults in approach were apparent. The offense ran more motion and play action in the first half than at any other previous point in the year, and it worked! Yet offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich, who has been constantly and rightfully maligned throughout the weeks, decided to abandon nearly all of it in the second half at the slightest sign of the Bengals adapting.
So the solution to your opponent matching your newfound creativity is to…get less creative and predictable? It just punctuated that Leftwich is overmatched in far too many areas – from sequencing to situation playcalling to design – to be trusted as the shepherd of a pro offense.
Now, a brief discussion on head coach Todd Bowles before addressing my overall point. This man simply does not understand what it means to be smartly aggressive, and his decision to fake punt on his own 26-yard line is the perfect example.
Your team is still commanding a double-digit lead at this point, but the offense is showing signs of fizzling. You desire a spark to keep everyone in the right mindset, which is understandable. But how does it compute to pull out a fake punt, which they haven’t tried once this year and presumably don’t practice much, with a clearly noticeable wrinkle (rarely used Gio Bernard as the upback) and sitting deep in your own territory?
If you really want to go for it, literally use the greatest QB of all time and roll the dice that way. Then you have a similar situation later in the game where you’re now down by double digits with less than 10 minutes remaining. It’s 4th and 1 at your 11, and you punt. What?
Bengals special-teams coach says they had noticed Bucs had Bernard in that role on punt team where he hadn't before, so they'd suspected something could be up. He still saw it as "communications" error from Bucs on botched fake punt. https://t.co/NT0mOwpziE— Greg Auman (@gregauman) December 19, 2022
This is all happening while letting your entire team deflate like a football up in the New England cold. It’s maddening, and it’s just another set of examples in a season full of them.
I left open the possibility of Bowles and Leftwich saving their jobs weeks ago when, at the season’s midpoint, the struggles were clearly much deeper than a minor quirk or two. But, with three games remaining, in the midst of the saddest division race of the year, it’s clear that they lack the necessary capability.
At 6-8, they lead the other three teams (all 5-9) by just one game, and they have to deal with two feisty rivals in Atlanta and Carolina, both of whom will not just roll over. Even with the reeling Arizona Cardinals likely starting Trace McSorley on Christmas night, there is a very real chance that Buccaneers could lose out or limp to a 7-10 or 8-9 finish. And the fact we’re even discussing that seriously makes the requisite moves clear.
The team must clean house.
Bowles’s identity is established. He’s a bad head coach with a cowardly approach who can’t properly manage games or hold his roster accountable. Some men are meant to simply be coordinators, and that’s alright. He’ll find work elsewhere, but it should not be for Tampa in 2023. One and done is tough to swallow for everyone – ownership, management, the fans, Bruce Arians – but this is an unusual set of circumstances that really demand perspective through a different lens.
To quote myself, because I remain steadfast in this belief:
Meanwhile, Leftwich needs a year off to learn about why he failed so badly this year with a team full of talent, or he can resign himself to coaching college or being a position coach.
By winning the lowly 2022 NFC South crown and stumbling into the playoffs, that “accomplishment” would only imply that these two individuals somehow performed to expectation, which is laughably absurd. With large-scale roster changes incoming, eyes need to fixate more on the future and how to rebuild a sustainable winner, and neither Bowles nor Leftwich should be trusted with that task.
The roster is going to look very different with several high-profile free agents likely to leave (Tom Brady, Jamel Dean, potentially Lavonte David) and more casualties coming because of being a projected $53 million over the cap. One far-fetched option is understanding this staff’s limits, but just letting them weather a tough ‘23 campaign, grab a top pick, and then boot them out when your outlook is more flexible.
That’s not really a good message to send to your cornerstone players, however, and it will depress a fanbase that is far too familiar with disappointment.
If you’re going to suck, at least suck with some promise toward the future (see Dan Campbell with Lions last year/earlier this year). The specifics for the vision of the future can be discussed in a few weeks, but it’s clear that the current leadership’s final weeks, and any paltry division title they might deliver, should be a non-factor.
It will feel brutal in the moment, but the Bucs choking away their lead and missing the playoffs would make a necessary decision easier and immediately creates a more optimistic outlook. With a measured approach and the right coaches, hopefully there won’t be another two-decade wait between world championships.
Until then, we ought to buckle up for a long winter. It’s a Bucs Life.