TAMPA — Like most of the decisions the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have made this year — from their deployment of cornerback Darrelle Revis to their benching of former quarterback Josh Freeman — this one sparked a controversy.
The critics questioned the logic of it, most asking why, after learning left guard Carl Nicks had a reccurrence of the MRSA infection that kept him out of the first four games, the Bucs wouldn't just place Nicks on season-ending injured reserve.
The Bucs responded by pointing to the schedule.
With 11 games left to play at that point, they argued they still had a chance at finishing the season with a winning record. The fact the Bucs have lost the three games since then hasn't changed their mind much.
Though a playoff run is clearly out of the question, the 2013 season is still only half over. Eight games remain and the Bucs believe that gives them a chance to regain some relevance, win back some respect, maybe even save some jobs.
“Is there an opportunity to still do something special this year? Yes, there is,'' Bucs coach Greg Schiano said. “We need to right the wrong, correct the impression that's out there of who we are.
“There's no doubt we have an opportunity to do that. And it's a great opportunity. We just have to get the plane going up, show some upward trajectory. And I believe we can still do that.''
Players such as Nicks are among the reasons the Bucs still believe. At a time when most teams are losing key players to injury, the Bucs are starting to get some of their key players back.
Two-time Pro Bowl safety Dashon Goldson, who missed the past two games with a knee injury, should be back in the lineup for the “Monday Night Football” game against the Miami Dolphins at Raymond James Stadium (8:40 p.m.; ESPN; WMOR, Ch. 32). And while Nicks won't be in the lineup, he is showing steady improvement from the surgery to remove the infection, the Bucs say, and might not be far away from a return.
“Hopefully, if we can get some of these guys back healthy, little by little, there could be some good things,'' Schiano said. “There are some positive things going on with this team. We just need to keep building on them.''
The play of rookie quarterback Mike Glennon is one positive. Glennon, whom the Bucs drafted in the third round this year, has proved to be far more mobile and poised than expected and has quickly developed into a consistent playmaker.
He hasn't thrown an interception in his past three games, has seven touchdown passes against one interception in his past four and entered the weekend with a better passer rating than Tom Brady, Joe Flacco and Eli Manning.
“Mike is playing his butt off,'' left tackle Donald Penn said. “He's really showing the football world that he was a sleeper and he's coming out and doing some very good things for us. And one thing you guys don't know about him is, he's leading us.
“He's really pumping us up. Between almost every series he's on the sideline chatting with the offensive line and getting us going. He has a drive and a determination to win that you can see in him while we're playing, and I think that really rubs off on us. I just think he's doing a great job of commanding the offense right now.''
Tampa Bay has thrown the ball quite a bit since Glennon took over for Freeman five games ago, calling 218 pass plays to 119 running plays.
That's not in keeping with their offensive philosophy. The Bucs consider themselves a run-first team, and when they recommitted to running the ball at Seattle last week, the results were encouraging. Even without injured running back Doug Martin and Nicks, who were replaced by rookie Mike James and veteran Jamon Meredith, respectively, the Bucs ran for 205 yards, including 158 by James.
They also scored a season-high 24 points.
“The whole group really bought in to the notion of, 'Hey, we're going to go up to the bully in the school yard and match him punch for punch.' And I think that's something else that we can build upon,'' offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan said.
“Now the key is to take some of that physicality and commitment and energy and translate that into pass protection. That would really be the next step to put all the pieces of the puzzle together.''
For the most part, the puzzle pieces have been in place on defense since the beginning of the season. For a variety of reasons, though, they have not formed the picture the Bucs expected.
Revis has played more zone than usual because he hasn't built up enough stamina or strength in his surgically repaired left knee to consistently play man coverage. After the loss at Seattle, Revis said he is slowly regaining his best form, which also encourages the Bucs about the final eight games.
“He's still not all the way there, but he feels stronger than he has and the last two games I think have been shutouts for him,'' Schiano said of Revis, who allowed just one reception his past two games. “So, he's covering very well and practicing very well, and those are good signs for us.''
To erase the stigma created during their 0-8 start, however, the Bucs also need to create more takeaways. The Bucs have a plus-2 turnover ratio, crossing into the plus side after forcing three turnovers at Seattle.
They also need to do a better job of rushing the passer. The Bucs rank a dismal 26th overall in the 32-team NFL in sacks with 17, 11 of which came in the first three games.
Oddly, it's that early-season success that has the Bucs believing they can turn up the heat on opposing passers and turn their defensive game around in the second half.
“We haven't done it in the last few games, but we have had plenty of opportunities to sack the quarterback in those games and (the quarterback) has just gotten out,'' Schiano said. “So, I believe we'll get our sacks again. I have no concerns about that.''
At the same time, Schiano is trying not to concern himself too much with these final eight games and what they might mean for his future or the perception outsiders have of his team.
He has always been a one-week-at-a-time kind of guy. Collectively, though, the Bucs know there is an opportunity these final two months to alter their image.
“Yeah, we definitely have plenty of time to do that,” McCoy said. “But I don't think that's our goal, necessarily. Our goal is to just get as many wins as we possibly can. And when you see how we played at the beginning of the season, you see that it is possible.
“You see that we can do it, because at the beginning of the year, our biggest issue was just finishing off games. So, now we'll see if we can pull it all together, both sides of the ball, and do it through four quarters.”