TAMPA — The season started in August with “Hard Knocks,” packed bleachers at training camp and cheers for coach Dirk Koetter.
It ended Sunday with a 24-21 loss to the Lions, a lot of empty seats and chants of “We want Gruden back.” It’s official now: For the 10th straight season, the Bucs will not be going to the playoffs.
In this week’s Turning Point, we examine the debacle against Detroit and how it might shape Tampa Bay’s future.
NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reported Sunday morning that the relationship between Jameis Winston and Koetter was “not in a good place.” Rapoport also dropped the dreaded “predictable” bomb when describing Koetter’s offense. That’s a label, valid or not, that can be hard to shake.
The Bucs and Lions then played a game in which they spent the first three quarters showing us why their relationship with winning was “not in a good place.” Tampa Bay made the more compelling argument, turning the ball over five times and spotting Detroit a two-touchdown lead. The Lions committed three turnovers.
Sloppy football from teams that had lost a combined 14 games. How predictable.
The Bucs rallied because a loss can’t just be a loss. It must inflict maximum frustration and disappointment.
Tampa Bay opened the fourth quarter with a Winston touchdown pass to tight end O.J. Howard. When the Bucs reached the 2-yard line on their next possession, they called the same play. The target, however, was different.
Winston faked the handoff, looked to the opposite side of the field and found Leonard Wester all alone for an easy game-tying touchdown.
“Detroit, for all the good things they do, they’ve had an issue with play-action on the goal line all year. We hit the first one to O.J., and that was just simple,” Koetter said. “When we looked at the picture (on the sideline), we noticed that Leonard was wide open on the backside. So we said if we get down there again, we were going to do it again.”
Huh. Same play. What’s that word again? Oh, right. Predictable. Does anyone object to predictable plays that result in touchdowns?
“I guarantee you it was predictable to them — they knew that play was coming,” Winston said. “We executed that play. We don’t get asked about that being predictable because we ran the same exact play on both of those touchdowns. … Like I said, execution. We have to execute.”
After the extra point tied the game at 21, Tampa Bay’s win probability rose to 50 percent. It had been as low as 3 percent.
The Bucs had no business winning this game, and yet with about five minutes left, they had a chance. Winston completed an 11-yard pass to Cameron Brate. Charles Sims rushed for 11 yards. Then … that was it. They didn’t gain another yard the rest of the game.
After a Tampa Bay punt, Detroit marched right down the field. Matthew Stafford completed six passes for 53 yards, and Matt Prater kicked a 46-yard field goal to win the game.
What it means
It might seem as if the Bucs are a team that can’t catch a break. In reality, though, they’ve had numerous opportunities. They’re Lloyd and Harry in “Dumb and Dumber.” If they were stranded in a desert, they’d turn down an invitation to get on a bus full of models.
Consider a couple of their other near-misses this season:
• Against the Bills in Week 7, they took a 27-20 lead with three minutes left. Buffalo quickly responded, driving 75 yards in 46 seconds to tie the game. On the Bucs’ first play of their next possession, receiver Adam Humphries lost a fumble. The Bills won 30-27.
• Last week against the Packers, they took a 20-17 lead with six minutes left. Green Bay drove 70 yards to kick a tying field goal. On the Bucs’ first play of their next possession, Winston completed a 20-yard pass to Sims that ended up becoming a 10-yard loss because of an illegal block penalty. Tampa Bay punted three plays later, and the offense never got another chance. The Packers won in overtime 26-20.
That’s three potential game-winning drives. Twenty-three yards. One first down. Zero points. Three losses.
Imagine if those drives turn out differently. That’s the line between 7-6 and 4-9, the line between disappointment and disaster. We’re not talking about tension between Winston and Koetter. We’re not talking about the predictability of Koetter’s offense. There is no Rapoport story. There are no “We want Gruden back” chants as Bucs players walk off the field.
Two years ago, Tampa Bay ownership fired its defensive-minded head coach because, in part, of his defense’s lack of progress down the stretch. Lovie Smith’s team lost its final four games to finish 6-10.
Today, another coach’s future hangs in the balance. While the defense is among the league’s least effective units, the offense is complicit, too, in this calamity of a season. The Bucs are averaging eight points per game in the first half, setting in motion a series of late-game comebacks that have ultimately fallen short. Koetter’s team has lost three straight games, and its final three don’t look winnable.
If the Bucs end the season on a six-game losing streak, there’s only one word to describe Koetter’s fate.
Contact Thomas Bassinger at [email protected] Follow @tometrics.