TAMPA (WFLA) – Football is easy, right? Just put the ball into the hands of the play makers and get out of the way.
That’s exactly how it worked, during my final organized football game, playing for the 1980 TBYFL Super-Midget Division Packers. We won a championship. Surely, this qualifies me to talk about winning football games.
Not really. But like all of you Bucs fans, that locker room on Sundays, Wednesdays and Thursdays is a lot more enjoyable following a win and looking forward to the future. So, I’ll chime in, all in the spirit of hoping this Bucs team (which happens to be loaded with good guys on the roster) can turn the corner, for one game. Then two. Then three and so on.
The Bucs current five-game losing skid feels like much more of a “gut punch” in 2017. Why? We watched 9-7 the season before. We watched the big haul in free agency. We literally watched the HBO masterpiece Hard Knocks, this past summer. As Bucs offensive tackle Demar Dotson said on Sunday, maybe we’re all guilty of “believing the hype.”
At 2-6, the odds of a miracle playoff run are slim, to say the least. The odds of a winning record are in that same neighborhood. But as the great John McKay said back in the 1970s, “I just want to see progress.”
So as we, News Channel 8, are proud to call ourselves your Official Bucs Station, here are 8 ways to fix it all. Well, win a game, at least. Let’s start with that. And I will not mention the name, Josh McCown. At least, not until this Sunday’s Bucs Bonus Show, preferably after a feel-good day for all those suffering Bucs fans.
1. Get Jameis right
This counts more as a long-term move but Monday’s announcement that Winston will miss at least two games with his shoulder injury, is a step in the right direction. I’m not the first person to applaud Winston for showing great toughness for a month after injuring his shoulder in Arizona. But in sports, an injury can become a liability, fast. We felt that everything was OK after that 384-yard day in Buffalo but were told that Winston had a “setback.” We had no idea what that would mean until the following week, a sub-par performance by Winston against Carolina. And when Winston took hits in New Orleans on Sunday, no one needed an MRI to tell that there was something not right. So let Ryan Fitzpatrick run the show, for now. And if Winston is not in a place where he is near perfect health, it’s time to consider 2018.
2. Get the line in line
In the world of “complimentary” football, as the Bucs coaches like to say, the Bucs offensive line should not have to carry the load. The extremely talented tandem receivers, Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson, should get to their spots and make the quarterback’s eyes get huge as he drools over the big play that is about to happen. Somewhere in there is the hard part and that means that Winston (or Fitzpatrick) needs that extra .08 seconds. I actually believe the Bucs O-line is a good one. It’s just not in sync like other areas of the team. We’ve done many interviews with media favorites, Ali Marpet, Donovan Smith and Demar Dotson. They all say the same thing: If one part is off, disaster can happen. Rather than criticize the fundamentals of pass protection, I’ll go with an obvious one: Penalties. Not the holding kind. The false starts are what drives Bucs fans to the beer cooler, not to be refreshed. An offensive lineman has more to worry about (penalty wise), than virtually every other player on the field. It is not easy. But to move the football, coaches like to “stay on schedule.” That means, keep the ball between the markers on 1st & 2nd downs, not 5, 10 yards behind, because of a penalty.
3. A runaway
I was giddy over the return of Bucs running back Doug Martin following the completion of his suspension earlier this season. I think he has run hard up until this past Sunday in New Orleans. Maybe I’m wrong. But it sure seemed like Martin was apprehensive when a clear hole did not emerge where it was supposed to be. The last thing a team needs is a running back with “happy feet,” but if you don’t hit any ounce of the short-lived hole with purpose, you get zero yards, or even worse, minus 1, minus 2, etc. During training camp, I felt that the tandem of Martin and Jacquizz Rodgers could really make a difference. I’m beginning to wonder if Peyton Barber deserves more of a chance. Barber is hitting 3.6 yards per carry, with just 23 attempts this season. The run game is fairly and often attributed to a strong offensive line (see above) but the runner who bursts into the hole is also the guy who consistently sees the second level. At 3.5 yards per carry, this is where I could see Martin improving.
4. Get nasty on the D-Line
I love Robert Ayers, Jr. He has a big laugh and was the perfect ham for our Bucs Bonus Show commercials, last year. Even more, I love when he switches “on” for games. Ayers really is a scary dude. Now let’s see more offensive tackles worry. The Bucs pass rush is having yet another rough season. Eight quarterback sacks, so far, dead last in the NFL. The defensive linemen acknowledge this. And trust me, they’d love to have the 35 sacks right now that the Jacksonville Jaguars have. If Gerald McCoy is drawing double-team blocking, shouldn’t the numbers favor the other D-linemen? Injuries have decimated this group. Noah Spence is out. Will Gholston is likely to miss time. Even my guy, Ayers, tweaked an ankle at practice last week, ironically before sacking Saints quarterback, Drew Brees, on Sunday. But “three-technique” aside, the pass rush can disrupt the opposing quarterback, even without sacking him.
5. Cover, cover, cover
Right after pass rush, the defensive lifeline is coverage down the field. This truly is an example complimentary football that fans can recognize. Cover for an extra tenth of a second, the pass rush gets that much closer to the quarterback. I’ll confess to not being the expert on defensive coordinator Mike Smith’s scheme, when we see receivers all alone like we did on Sunday when Ted Ginn Jr. hauled in a Drew Brees touchdown strike. But let us begin with cornerback, Brent Grimes. He is missed. Dearly. When Grimes loses a battle, you tip your cap to the receiver. That’s how reliable he is. Grimes’ shoulder injury is the second most critical shoulder issue on the entire Bucs roster. His closing speed is still among the best in the game. How many times have you seen a receiver one step ahead of Grimes, only to watch the final step and leap of a pass breakup? It is beautiful to watch and seems to have an effect on every other Bucs defensive back. I love Grimes hanging out with second-year cornerback, Vernon Hargreaves III. Soak it all in young man. But it also makes the growing pains for the younger player tough to absorb. Remember that first bomb to Stefon Diggs by Case Keenum in Minnesota? I marked that as the moment that Hargreaves became tentative. The Bucs switched Hargreaves to a more inside position and it made a big difference. But with injuries affecting depth, he is just going to have learn all the hats an NFL cornerback must wear.
6. Don’t trip yourself
I mentioned that offensive linemen endure the most penalty risks during a game. But most penalties are costly, for different reasons. For the Bucs, it’s the untimely nature. I remember a 3rd down, in the Arizona game. Jameis Winston (already hurting from the shoulder impact) needs 8 yards. False start: Tampa Bay, number 13. It’s now 3rd and 13. Winston completes a pass for 9 yards. Against Carolina, it was a Peyton Barber holding call that wiped out a 1st-down pass to Evans. A Donovan Smith hold negated a Winston scramble for a 1st down. On Sunday, in New Orleans, it was poor Devante Bond, missing a blocking assignment on a punt. The kick was blocked. Touchdown Saints. The Bucs are guilty of making the mistake when it matters most. Tackling has cost the defense yards and points. I’m still trying to figure out how Justin Evans failed to bring down rookie, Alvin Kamara, on his touchdown run that “wowed” the national media.
Quarterback Jameis Winston admitted that during this losing skid, there has yet to be a players’ meeting in the locker room. I’m not the biggest proponent of the “player-only meeting” because if they happen too often, they get tuned out as much as a poor coach would be ignored. But head coach Dirk Koetter said something I found interesting, during one of our recent ‘Koetter’s Korner’ interviews. He said that players do not lose confidence when things aren’t going well. They can lose belief. The example he used was simple. An offensive player will not believe in the defense and vice versa. I mentioned earlier that the Bucs locker room is full of good guys. They all have leadership qualities. But who is the leader that demands accountability? We have examples of Winston speaking to the team, hitting the right tone, with even the lesser-known players. But I want to know which player is the guy that teammates fear letting down. Former Bucs great John Lynch once told me a story of Warren Sapp riding him during a training-camp practice in Lynch’s rookie season. Lynch did the opposite of what you might expect. He got in Sapp’s face. Accountability questions were nipped right there. Sapp knew that Lynch had his back on every play. And Lynch knew that Sapp would do everything he could to prevent the opponent from forcing the safety to have to make a play. Who is leading this team by action? Who is staying quiet?
8. Look in the mirror
Bucs head coach Dirk Koetter knew that his relationship with Jameis Winston would have to change a bit, the moment Koetter was named as Lovie Smith’s replacement. This relationship and the quest to build the franchise around Winston is arguably the very reason Koetter was offered the job. It is true that Koetter struck a chord with Winston as the Bucs offensive coordinator during the QB’s rookie season. Unfortunately, Koetter does not have the luxury of being as “hands on” as he would like to be as the head coach. Is the same thing happening when it comes to calling the plays? I don’t think the act (and the art) of play calling is what hampers Koetter. The guy has literally designed and called thousands of plays, for every game situation you could imagine. Once the play is in, the coach can only sit back and watch it unfold, like the rest of us. But I would like to see how Koetter’s day-to-day tasks have changed when it comes to the game-week preparation. He is a film junky. But is he able to participate in the “install” portion of the offense as much as he did as the offensive coordinator? On the defensive side, coordinator Mike Smith needs no introduction. His success as the Atlanta Falcons head coach, and turnaround of the Bucs defense last year, speak for themselves. But why is communication a problem a year after it was a culprit in early struggles? The answer has to be “belief” for the coaching staff, as much as the players. Do the position coaches believe in what Koetter is doing? If not, the roots of failure will grow long before the players step on to the practice field or meeting room. On Monday, Koetter told me that he included the coaches in his talks with the team, making sure that everyone is on the same page. He challenged the entire room to make the difference. I guarantee that Koetter includes himself as part of that challenge.