It’s getting ridiculous. All of it. The interceptions, the dropped passes, the offensive predictability… One week, the Buccaneers need a 17-point comeback to overtake the 1-6 Vikings; the next, they’re smashing the Saints and breaking Sean Payton’s legs.
They have no identity. The team exists somewhere in between the 48-3 West Coast beatdown and the 24-17 handling of the Colts, but after watching almost half the season, I’m thinking they’re closer to the squad we saw in San Francisco.
The only constant from week-to-week has been Josh Freeman’s interceptions. Sometimes the Buccaneers can run the ball, sometimes they can’t. One week, Aqib Talib erases Reggie Wayne from the game, and the next he’s being burnt to ashes by Josh Morgan. Against the Lions and the Vikings, Mike Williams makes two ridiculous touchdown catches — stretching his body and dragging his feet for the receptions — but now, he couldn’t catch a fuzzy football in a velcro suit.
Who are the Buccaneers? We’ll find out in the second half of 2011. And I don’t think we’ll be happy about it.
Michael Koenen wasn’t a scatback, or a franchise tackle, or a shutdown corner, but he’s been one of the best free agent pickups in the NFL. I don’t know if it’s really awesome or embarrassingly terrible, but the 29-year-old punter might be Tampa’s best player halfway through this season.
He’s dropped a league-leading 15 punts inside the opponents’ 20-yard line, and has, inexplicably, zero touchbacks. He’s the directional kicker that Tampa sought when they drafted Brent Bowden, but has the power to drive the ball down field when the Buccaneers are backed up, effectively denying field position to the opposing team.
Kickoffs have been a strength, too. He’s averaging a touchback on nearly half of his kicks, and together with the coverage unit, is allowing only 18.8 yards per return — 0.2 yards behind Washington for the best average in the league.
But his best position might be his most unheralded: Koenen has been as masterful a holder as we’ve had in the last decade. He’s been the pivotal joint between long snapper and kicker, and the process has been one of the smoothest examples of execution on the entire team. Connor Barth is on pace to make 30 field goals in 2011 — easily the best mark of his career — and is only inches from a perfect 15 for 15 on the season.
Koenen had his best game against the Bears and the incomparable Devin Hester. His punts totaled almost 400 yards, and Chicago’s all-star punt returner averaged a pedestrian 6.6 yards per return. Koenen is on pace to average an all-time Buccaneer best 46.34 yards per punt, and might be Tampa’s only representative in the 2011 Pro Bowl.
I wish Luke Stocker had been give an opportunity to run the football. Not that I think he’d be especially good at it, but only for my own vindictive pleasure. It would’ve perfectly punctuated Tampa’s stupidity for deploying only two healthy halfbacks for the Chicago game. You can not play a game with only two runners, especially when one of them is your backup fullback. They should’ve spent the week in London prepping a practice squad running back — Mossis Madu maybe? — for an emergency role. And really, they had the room on the sideline. Did Jacob Cutrera add that much to the roster on Sunday? Or Zac Diles?
Whatever their reasoning, Josh Freeman isn’t a player who’s going to outmaneuver a defense without the help of a running game. When Earnest Graham went down, the Buccaneers lost a hard-nosed rushing attack, a third-down safety valve, and premier pass protection. All the Bears had to do was blitz six men, and someone was bound to break through.
Poor planning by the coaches, and it might’ve cost them the game.
I’d single out Freeman, or Greg Olson, or Mike Williams, or Jeremy Trueblood, or Kellen Winslow, but honestly, they’ve been collectively mediocre this season. And the thing that troubles me the most — by far — is the organization’s failure to come up with an answer.
I think the coaches and the fans share the same affliction: they have no idea what the hell is wrong. That’s the only explanation, or they would’ve fixed the problem by now. Why isn’t Mike Williams hanging on to passes? No one knows. Mike probably doesn’t know, either. Why isn’t Freeman hitting open targets? We don’t have any idea.
What happened to the versatile, explosive offense from a season ago? We don’t know, and I’m convinced: neither does anyone else. It’s a problem — with no apparent solution — that will spoil the 2011 season for this team. For seven weeks — give or take a couple — the offense has taken the field and looked rigid. Hesitant. Lost. Bumbling. Something needs to be done. Bench Williams, fire Olson, do anything. If the cancer is spreading and you can’t find it, it’s time to start hacking off some limbs.
(Chris C. — a contributor to BuccaneersGab.com — has a few poignant thoughts on the matter. It’s a lengthy and thoughtful column, and makes more sense than Greg Olson’s play calls. Give it a read.)