TAMPA — Only a week into the 2013 season, there are still plenty of unknowns with the Buccaneers.
One thing that is certain — unlike recent editions of the Bucs — is this team does not lack for veteran savvy or leadership. More than half the players on the Bucs roster have been in the league for four years or more, and eight have been to the Pro Bowl, including five on offense.
Good thing, too, because the Bucs are going to need that savvy.
Every team reaches a point in the season when it faces a critical test of character. Few reach it after just one week.
As they prepare for today’s home opener against the New Orleans Saints, though, that is precisely where the Bucs stand.
Oh, and their dismal 18-17 loss to the Jets last week is only part of the problem. The bigger issue is the shroud of turmoil the Bucs suddenly find themselves wrapped in. After Josh Freeman missed the team photo last week, many are questioning not only the fifth-year quarterback’s ability to play consistently, but also his commitment to the team and even the game itself.
And then there was the controversy surrounding the players’ vote for team captains, which an unsourced Internet report suggested was manipulated by head coach Greg Schiano to assure Freeman wasn’t one of them.
Schiano tabulated those votes and denied any manipulation of the outcome, but there is no denying Schiano and his team have already reached a point in which one more loss, one more controversy, could lead to an implosion.
That’s where all that leadership comes in, and as today’s kickoff drew nearer, that influence was already being felt.
“What’s the controversy everyone is talking about?’’ fourth-year wide receiver Mike Williams asked rhetorically after Friday’s light practice. “Seriously, I don’t know what it is everyone is talking about.
“If it’s last week’s game, we’ve put that behind us and moved on. If it’s something from the outside, well, we don’t let that kind of stuff become a distraction. Really, that’s our No. 1 thing around here. We try to go into every game with no distractions, because if you can do that then all you have to worry about is doing your job and playing football. And then it comes down to the best team wins on Sunday.’’
As novel as that idea is, it didn’t work last week. The Bucs went into MetLife Stadium as a four-point favorite, but lost 18-17 to a rookie quarterback making his first start and a team many considered among the worst in the league.
Even Schiano admitted the loss was largely self-inflicted, for which there was plenty of evidence.
Just as they did during the preseason, the Bucs struggled to protect Freeman against the Jets, allowing three sacks and five quarterback hits. They also struggled to catch the ball, dropping three passes.
Freeman, meanwhile, had another down day, completing fewer than half of his 31 throws for 210 yards, a touchdown and an interception while failing to follow the proper protocol when the communication transmitter in his helmet went out.
So, the Bucs will enter the start of conference and division play today still trying to prove they can consistently break the huddle and run an effective play.
“There’s no question we have to play better than we did last week,’’ linebacker Dekoda Watson said. “The outcome of that game was really dictated by us and so we have to be smarter about what we’re doing.
“And yes, that starts with the leaders. They have to continue to do what they do. But it’s on the followers, too. You have to have great followers to win, and if the followers here can’t be that, then they can’t be here.’’
The message from the leaders this week was echoed by Williams: Put last week behind you and focus on your job, the Saints and what you can do to help your team win.
Time is of the essence.
Starting an NFL season 0-1 is bad enough, but starting off 0-2 is akin to a presidential hopeful losing Florida and Ohio in a general election. You seldom, if ever, recover.
Here’s the proof. Since the NFL adopted its current 12-team playoff format in 1990, 160 teams have gone 0-2 to start the year. Of those, only 22, or 13.75 percent, reached the playoffs.
And it’s only getting harder for such teams. In the past 10 years, only 10.8 percent of the teams that started 0-2 reached the postseason. And in five of the past 10 years, no 0-2 starter made it.
But that big picture is not what the Bucs are focused on. As Schiano preaches, their focus is far more narrow. It’s on this week, this game, this opponent and the parts of the game they can control.
“Look,’’ left tackle Donald Penn said, “I’m not going to sugar coat it. We have to get a couple of things fixed and we know that. We have to get the run game going a little better and we have to help Josh more. We have to fix the communication problems that have been hurting us and get rid of some of the penalties, because this is not what we want to be known for.
“We did some good things last week, but the bad outweighed the good. So, we have to bounce back, especially with a division rival and a conference team coming in that looked good last week and is already 1-0. We have to answer. It’s that simple.
“It’s on us and we have to answer.’’