Okay, for the first time this season, I’m ticked off. Not about the Bucs’ playoff chances taking a hit; that’s been a non-starter for me all year, so I haven’t really been invested in the possibility. No, it was that the Eagles are the kind of team the Bucs should be able to come out and dominate. A reeling team with a rookie quarterback and a defense in disarray, and the Bucs let them look like Donovan McNabb was still back there under center. After bumbling through an awful first half, Tampa Bay scored 21 consecutive points, and it looked like they’d gotten things under control. And while the pass defense did its usual disappearing act, it was the decision that put that them in that position that I really have a problem with.
On the Bucs’ final possession, Doug Martin was getting warmed up. He’d broken off a few good runs, the Eagles had called all but one of their timeouts. It was third and 8, and you could see the Eagles stacking up to stop the run. It seemed like the perfect time for a play action pass to get the first down, forcing the Eagles to call their final timeout and pretty much guaranteeing a win. Instead, there was Martin going straight up the middle, right into a stuffed defensive line. Timeout, punt, and the Eagles got the ball with a little over two minutes to go and the two-minute warning at their disposal.
I get it. You want to run down the clock, you don’t want to risk an incompletion stopping it, or an interception turning the ball over. But the Bucs have so many pass-catching weapons. And they’d set up the Eagles to be vulnerable to play action. It was a perfect time to be aggressive and not give the Eagles even a wisp of a chance. And if they had to run the ball, why not something a little more imaginative than a dive up the gut? A draw from the shotgun, something outside, anything but flying blind into a stacked line. It was the safe play — if you hadn’t just watched Nick Foles put up over 300 yards on your defense. There’s no way Greg Schiano should have trusted his pass defense to hold that lead. Say what you want about giving them a vote of confidence; how about giving the entire team a boost and actually try to get that first down?
Instead, the Eagles marched down the field, taking advantage of two inexplicable defensive penalties, and of the continuing trend of receivers being completely wide open going over the middle against the defense. A pass rush that had recorded six sacks up to that point suddenly couldn’t get any pressure, and the team gave up a 22-yard pass on 4th and five that put the ball on the one with two seconds to go. I was ready to stop watching; I knew we were going to give up the TD. I wasn’t even that upset when it happened, since it felt like such a certainty. It was only dwelling on the loss afterwards that the frustration really kicked in. All the hard work this team has done to dig itself out of a 2-4 hole feels like it’s down the drain as they slip back under .500 again. This doesn’t feel like losing to the Falcons or Broncos, teams clearly better than the Bucs. This was a bad team, and they played harder than the Bucs did. And that should not happen.
And I’m back to being worried about Josh Freeman. Yeah, he threw a couple of touchdowns, but he looked horrible again for huge chunks of the game. Next year is the last year of his rookie contract, and the Bucs are going to have to make a decision about whether he’s The Guy, and if he should get paid like it. And so far, with the better part of four seasons under his belt, I’m not seeing it. There hasn’t been a sense of consistency, or improvement. He’ll seem to take a step forward, then take two steps back. He’s not terrible, but not terrible will keep you at 8-8 and 9-7 and getting knocked out of the first round. These last three games will really be make or break for him, because I can’t imagine the Bucs wanting his contract situation hovering over next season. Something has to click, or it could be time for a new quarterback come 2014.
I still like the direction the team is heading in. I love what Schiano is doing. And that’s exactly what makes losses like this just suck. They should be better than this.