Bucs Central
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If you have turned on a radio, watched local news or ESPN, or read a newspaper recently,—yes, some people still do that—then you have undoubtedly seen the news of the Buccaneers latest head coaching hire, Greg Schiano. College football fans might remember his Rutgers team as the one continually ripping away the Big East title aspirations from the South Florida Bulls. Am I bitter? Maybe. But, as much as I despise his Rutgers-led teams defeating USF, I stand firm in the fact that I believe the Bucs got themselves a winner.

Bucs new head coach Greg Schiano

So, who is Greg Schiano? Eleven years ago he took over a Rutgers team in shambles. They were the laughing stock of Division-I football, and several losing seasons in a row raised discussion of moving the team down to Division-II. C’mon it can’t be that bad. Don’t be so sure, Mr. Italicize. ESPN readers voted Rutgers as the WORST college team in the HISTORY of Division-I football.

In his eleven years as coach, Schiano totaled a 68-67 record, which is unbelievable considering he was a combined 3-20 during the first two years of his tenure. Sure, it took a couple years of recruiting, but Schiano ultimately showed he was the right man for the job. He led Rutgers to winning seasons six of his last seven years and won five consecutive bowl games. And, interestingly enough, Schiano produced 16 players that are currently on a NFL roster during his tenure, according to Pro Football Reference. Boise State has nine. Wisconsin has 14. Alabama has 18.

Before Rutgers, he was the defensive coordinator for Miami Hurricanes football. He coached from 1999-2000, and Miami was 18-5 during the span, including 11-1 in 2000. He coached NFL players Ed Reed, Adrian Wilson, Dan Morgan, Nate Webster, Jonathan Vilma, and Philip Buchanon during his two seasons; while also helping recruit future NFL defensive talent such as Vince Wilfork, (the late) Sean Taylor, Antrel Rolle, Orien Harris, and Kelly Jennings.

He has experience coaching in the NFL as well. From 1996-1998, he served as a defensive assistant and then as the defensive back coach for the Chicago Bears. And even more appealing, Schiano’s coaching roots began at Penn State. It’s poignant considering the recent tragedy, but it really puts into perspective what kind of coach Schiano is molded to be like.

What can Bucs fans expect? One thing is certain. Schiano is a hard-nosed motivator, who will provide the discipline Bucs players desperate need. Maybe not want, but definitely need. He focuses on strong defense, solid special teams, and a smash-mouth type of offense, with deep-play threats mixed in. I guess the question Bucs fans need to ask now is, “Does he prefer drafting Trent Richardson or Justin Blackmon?”

Fantasy football championships are won with good drafting, some luck, and those one or two roster transactions that give owners the edge that propels them to the top of the standings. Congratulations to everyone who won a league title this year. If you won while having at least one Bucs player on your active roster, I applaud you. Even a second or third place finish is golf-clap worthy. Owners who bought into Josh Freeman and LeGarrette Blount – I understand your disgust. Unfortunately, there was plenty of heartache for owners who drafted the likes of Jamaal Charles, Peyton Hillis, Michael Vick, Peyton Manning, Chris Cooley, Kenny Britt, and several other under-achievers too. But, there were also fantasy God-sends; guys who seemed to play their best games right around the time you waited to use that number one waiver wire priority slot. Every owner has that guy—or perhaps, guys—that they picked up on a hunch during the season, which later went on to lead the team to a fantasy title. There are many to choose from, but these guys stood apart from the rest.

Boo-yah!

Quarterback:

Carson Palmer: Six months ago this guy was reclining on his couch eating Oreos and Doritos, and watching reruns of ‘Seinfeld’ and ‘Boy Meets World’. All it took was one broken collarbone by Jason Campbell, and a panic in the Raiders front office when they realized Rich Gannon had retired, before Palmer suddenly became one of the more relevant fantasy pickups of the season. His numbers weren’t spectacular, (16 TD’s; 13 INT’s) but he saved owners who took chances on one-hit wonders Kevin Kolb, Sam Bradford, and (cough) Josh Freeman.

Tim Tebow – Just when you thought I might leave him out. Sorry, whether you love him or despise him, you can’t discount his production, err, at least his fourth quarter stats. Since Tebow started Week 7 versus Miami, he averaged 17.12 fantasy points a week according to default Yahoo settings. Yes, he had some ugly games sprinkled in, but overall his stats indicate a top 15 quarterback for fantasy purposes. In real life…well that’s another discussion.

 Running Back:

C.J. Spiller: If not for an unfortunate fractured right ankle, Cowboys’ running back DeMarco Murray would have won the top spot in a landslide. Instead, the award goes to Buffalo’s lightning-quick running back C.J. Spiller. For 11 weeks he laid in wait in fantasy free agent pools just baiting owners to pick him up. When All-Pro back Fred Jackson hobbled to the sidelines with a fractured fibula, Spiller stepped up in a big way. He scored the fourth-most fantasy points among running backs during the final four weeks of the season, and that includes a non-existent performance Week 14 versus San Diego. He was money for owners in PPR (point-per-reception) leagues too, catching an average of four balls a game, along with two receiving touchdowns.

Roy Helu: I really fought with myself about putting Oakland’s Michael Bush, New Orleans’ Darren Sproles, or Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch in here, but then I realized I wouldn’t be following my own directions about picking only unwanted players for this list. Finally, I settled on Washington’s Roy Helu. If Coach Mike Shanahan had actually made up his mind and settled on a starting running back for more than four weeks, Helu had the potential to be the Arian Foster of the 2011 fantasy season. He showed the ability to run through (or jump over) defenders and still had the shiftiness to catch the ball out of the backfield and outrun would-be tacklers. In a seven-week stretch, Helu recorded 404 yards rushing and caught the ball 35 times for 239 yards (including a ridiculous 14 catches for 105 yards against San Francisco). He only managed to find the end zone twice; however, I blame that more on the ineptitude of a Rex Grossman-led offense than I do Helu’s effectiveness. If Shanahan finally makes a decision on a starter this offseason, look for Helu to carry most of the load.

Wide Receiver:

Victor Cruz shows why he deserves to be the fantasy pickup of the year.

Victor Cruz: Who’s our favorite player? Well, today it’s not Mr. Derrick Brooks, Bucs fans. It’s New York Giants wide out Victor Cruz. Was there any other waiver wire pickup that helped fantasy owners more than Cruz? That’s a rhetorical question there, boys and girls. Cruz was far and away the savior to fantasy lineups across the nation. His 1539 receiving yards ranked third in the league, as did his 96 yards-per-game. He was also a stud for those who made it into the fantasy playoffs, catching nine balls for 342 yards and two scores. For those engulfed in fantasy football frenzy and are already pre-ranking players for next year, I rank him as a late second, early third round pick.

Laurent Robinson: If there is one other player besides Cruz that people can make an argument for as a fantasy golden nugget, it’s this guy. Owners of slumping receivers – such as Chad Ochocinco, Braylon Edwards, Austin Collie and the Bucs Mike Williams (do you sense a trend here) – welcomed Robinson into their lineups with open arms. And did he ever bless those who put faith in him. From Week 8 on, he may have been one of the ten best non-quarterback players in the league. He recorded 625 yards receiving and 11 touchdowns, including a whopping seven touchdowns in a five-game stretch. It’s tough to say what his production will be next season because of a talented group of receivers around him, but if this year is any indication, Dallas will throw the ball a lot, and quarterback Tony Romo does a pretty good job of spreading the ball around. He should be a sixth or seventh round selection, with second or third round upside if injuries occur.

Tight End:

Hey guys, I can catch the ball too.

Brandon Pettigrew: Wow, Detroit’s offense was scary good this year. If only the defense focused more on being good and less on being scary, the Lions might have gone further than the first round of the playoffs. Still, let’s not discount the mind-boggling offensive numbers quarterback Matthew Stafford put up. And who was it that may have benefitted the most? That’d be Pettigrew. Dumb journalist, what about Calvin Johnson? Hey, no need to get hostile here Mr. Italicize, here me out. Calvin Johnson, aka Megatron – who’s pretty much the harbinger of touchdowns and sick catches – is going to produce no matter who is throwing the ball to him. Heck, if Shaun Hill and Dan Orlovsky can do it, any NFL quarterback can. Okay, so back to Pettigrew. He’s quietly put together solid back-to-back years, catching 154 balls for 1499 yards and nine touchdowns. He was Stafford’s go-to-guy down the stretch, averaging slightly less than seven catches a game over the final four contests. With Johnson double-teamed most of the game, Pettigrew benefitted from loose coverage. Those in PPR leagues would be wise to select him next year, as I believe he will make a run at 90-100 catches.

Jermaine Gresham: No one expected anything from the Bengals offense this year, other than maybe a couple players being arrested during the season (and after the season, Jerome Simpson), thus adding to the NFL lead in that category. Remember back to opening week? Rookie quarterback, rookie number one wide receiver, aging running back, and unspectacular second-year tight end – doesn’t sound exciting at first. Instead, Andy Dalton and A.J. Green looked like they’d been playing catch for years, Jermaine Gresham was up-and-down, but showed a lot of potential, and Cedric Benson…well, he was still bad…but you get my drift. At 6-5, 260 pounds, Gresham is a budding superstar. Think Packers Jermichael Finley except that Gresham’s got Dalton throwing to him rather than MVP Aaron Rodgers. For next year, think ‘Discount Double-Check’ when you draft Gresham six rounds after the other elite tight ends and then reap the savings.

Kicker:

Dan Bailey: Normally, I would discard kickers because the point difference between the number one kicker and the tenth usually rounds up to about 20 points. Nevertheless, I can’t discard Dan ‘Beetle’ Bailey because I ended up owned him in every single one of my leagues. He also was a lineup saver to any owner who drafted San Diego’s Nate Kaeding. Who? Yeah, he’s the guy whom ESPN ranked as the number one kicker at the beginning on the year, only to see him get hurt on literally the opening kickoff of the season. That’s the way the cookie crumbles, though if you catch it quickly enough, that cookie becomes salvageable again. Bailey owners would agree. His 32 field goals were tied for the third-most in the NFL and his 6-for-6 outing Week 3 against Washington catapulted him from a fantasy afterthought to an every-week starter.

Again, congrats to those who won fantasy championships this year. As always, this season provided tons of excitement, some disappointment – even some anger – as star players were lost for the year and new talent took their place. If you are like me and live for fantasy football throughout the year, stay tuned for April’s draft, as I will be dissecting certain teams’ offensive selections and how they will impact fantasy rosters for 2012.

So ends the season, one of the most disappointing in team history.

THE GOOD

It’s over.  It’s blessedly, mercifully over.  Ten straight losses, five straight blowouts, and the end of a sixteen week torture session.  Rejoice fans, you get a whole eight months without having to watch Jeremy Trueblood whiff on blocks, Kellen Winslow draw offensive pass interference flags, Tanard Jackson bounce off opposing running backs like a rubber bullet against a refrigerator door, and Roy Miller drop back into coverage.

The Buccaneers didn’t finish with the worst record — hell, they claim victories over the Saints and Falcons — but their early season success betrays their late-season ineptitude.  They were the worst team in the 2011 National Football League, and for the first time in years, the season’s final gun brought more relief than remorse.

THE BAD

The house Raheem Morris and company built in 2010 has crumbled.  It needs to be demolished — the walls, the floors, everything.  Those building blocks we thought we had in players like Mike Williams, Gerald McCoy, and LeGarrette Blount may not survive the purge.  No one from this regime is safe, not Josh Freeman, not Mason Foster… and after the performance they gave to close the season, it’s no wonder.

A new coach brings a new philosophy, and if (when) Morris and Greg Olson are fired, it marks a complete removal from the Jon Gruden and Monte Kiffin era.  Farewell to the horizontal West Coast offense, so long to the Cover-2 (though Raheem claims to have abandoned it already).  And say goodbye to the players who fit those schemes: your Tanard Jacksons, Geno Hayeses, and…

… and…

You know, no one on the offense really fits that short-throwing West Coast scheme that Greg Olson employs.  No wonder it doesn’t work.

THE UGLY

Has a team ever so blatantly surrendered halfway through a season?  What happened out there?  The Buccaneers were run ragged through the gauntlet of NFL elites — six consecutive games against San Francisco, New Orleans, Chicago (with Jay Cutler), New Orleans, Houston (with Matt Schaub), and Green Bay — and came out, understandably, 1-5.

The turning point came in Week 12.  They rolled into Tennessee a respectable 4-6, showed some serious fight, but lost a close one to the Titans late in the fourth quarter.  The team left their vigor and energy in Nashville, because they were destroyed in the following five weeks.  The Buccaneers didn’t even bother showing up after their loss to the Titans.  They bristled at comments attacking their effort, and every week, we got a new chant about how things were turning around, but come game day, the team fell flat.  Deflated.  Exhausted.  Disinterested.

It’s like no one told them they were accountable.  No one told them they were professionals.  The only man in the building who seemed to care was the head coach, and their apathy will cost him his job.

The Good

General manager Mark Dominik has absolutely nailed some rookie acquisitions over the last couple seasons.  Mike Williams in the fourth round has already paid for itself; ditto Preston Parker.  Undrafted running back LeGarrette Blount is on his way to being one of the greatest Buccaneer runners ever, and Cody Grimm is proving to be the team’s best run-stopper.

But Adrian Clayborn has a chance to outshine them all.  The 20th pick in the 2011 draft has come just as advertised: he’s relentless, angry, motivated, and unshakeable.  He leads the team with 7.5 sacks (the most of any Buccaneer since 2007), and is 2.5 quarterback takedowns away from tying the franchise’s rookie record.

He beat the snot out of Dallas left tackle Doug Free on Saturday night, bull rushing the big blocker into the backfield whilst playing the run and the pass.  Clayborn’s upper body strength — an alleged weakness prior to the draft — has been his best weapon so far in his young career, and his outright tenacity has already made him Tampa’s best defensive lineman.  If Da’Quan Bowers can focus the potential he flashed earlier this season, then, in a few seasons, the Buccaneers might have a defensive line to rival the Spires/Sapp/McFarland/Rice quartet that helped win a Super Bowl.

The Bad

Did anyone — besides NFL Network analyst Marshall Faulk — expect a Buccaneer victory?

Yeah, me neither.  Initially, I took some solace in the team’s weak comeback attempt, and I found myself oddly comforted by the fact that the Buccaneers lost by only 16 points. “It sure beats losing by three scores to bad teams,” I thought, and the more I considered the game, the more depressed I became.  Losing by 16 points is never a good thing.  Right?

Well, Raheem Morris found reason for optimism. “Fortunately, for us, the team didn’t die on us like last week,” he told The Tampa Tribune after the game. “They fought back, they came back in the second half, they didn’t surrender…”

How nice.  The bright side to losing by two scores at home.

The Ugly

Earlier in the week, Kellen Winslow told the media that the Buccaneers would play the Cowboys tough, in defense of their head coach.  Several players agreed, and after a 31-15 beatdown, one thing seems clear: the Tampa Bay Buccaneers hate their head coach.  The team laid down for the third straight week, led in their apathy by right tackle Jeremy Trueblood.  He was abused all night by Cowboy pass rushers, and on a key third-and-short early in the game, he completely whiffed on the defensive lineman eight inches in front of him.  I’m not even sure he got a hand on him.

Trueblood was one of several Buccaneers who left their effort in the locker room, but his mistakes were magnified; Josh Freeman spent most of the night running for his life, and LeGarrette Blount averaged a paltry 2.3 yards per carry behind his overmatched offensive line.

Tampa Bay wanted to show the country how much they cared for their coach.

Mission accomplished.

Blain GabbertJarett Dillard?  A 41-14 loss to the Jaguars?  Really?

The Good

It took 13 games, 12 plays, and a fourth down conversion, but the Buccaneers finally recorded a first quarter offensive touchdown.  Greg Olson’s fourth down call — a playaction option bootleg — was what Tampa fans have been screaming for all season; it gave Josh Freeman the opportunity to utilize his ridiculous athleticism (and run for the first if he needed to), survey the deep field, and fire a pass down field while the defense flooded toward the scrambling passer.

The offense — “simplified” according to Olson — looked downright proficient on that initial drive.  But nothing gold can stay.  A quarter later, the Buccaneers were back to their old, inefficient ways.

The Bad

Five fumbles.  Three interceptions.  Seven turnovers.  12 penalties.  Why isn’t this team improving?  The level of competition is down — the Panthers and Jaguars certainly can’t match swords with the Saints and Packers — so why do the Buccaneers look worse than they have all season?  In back-to-back weeks, they’ve been annihilated by bad teams, substituting easy victories for demoralizing blowouts.

The players can say whatever they’d like to the media.  They can talk about effort, and discipline, and perseverance in their post game conferences, but the product doesn’t lie: the Buccaneers have surrendered their season, and none of them look like they care anymore.

The Ugly

It’s been a nightmare season.  Coming into 2011, the Buccaneers felt certain they employed a trio of Pro Bowlers in Josh Freeman, Mike Williams, and LeGarrette Blount.  They had a young, athletic defense on the rise, and after two seasons, Raheem Morris‘s Buccaneers evolved into the team that no one wanted to play.

Eleven months later, as we approach the exit to the 2011 season, only one thing is certain: the Bucs have a ton of work to do, and — judging by their dispirited play — Morris and company might not be around to oversee it.

Freeman, Williams, Blount, Aqib Talib, Gerald McCoy, and Kellen Winslow — all potential cornerstones a year ago — are huge question marks going into 2012.  The Buccaneers can’t stop the run, can’t stop the pass, can’t hope to move the ball offensively, and might be the worst team in the NFC.

What else is there to say?

It’s official.  The Buccaneers are the worst team in the division, and after a 38-19 blowout loss to the Panthers, they might be the worst team in the conference.  They’re losers of six straight, and outside of a few flashes of competence, are a shell of the near-playoff team we saw a year ago.

The Good

If the Buccaneers keep losing (no problems so far), they’ll land a top-10 draft pick, and with Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck being a consensus first- or second-overall selection, Tampa Bay is bound to land an impact player.  Justin Blackmon would relegate Mike Williams to the number two target, but — with a new offensive coordinator — the Oklahoma State wide receiver could immediately improve the offense.  Notre Dame’s Manti Te’o would provide the defense with a fundamentally sound, strong-tackling playmaker.  Morris Claiborne, the draft’s top defensive back, would replace Ronde Barber and — if Aqib Talib isn’t in jail — create one of the league’s most formidable corner tandems.

As bad as the team has performed in 2011, the Buccaneers are set at several positions.  It allows the management a little more freedom in their draft choices, and it’ll be exciting to see which way they decide to take the team.  The 2012 first-round pick — speed receiver?  power back?  defensive playmaker? — will go a long way toward establishing a team identity.

The Bad

The Panthers haven’t had a convincing win all year, but after that initial touchdown drive, I rolled my eyes, exhaled noisily, and braced myself for the beatdown.  The Bucs looked disinterested out there.  Sloppy.  For the second consecutive week, the offense scored only one touchdown, and the defense got ripped apart by the run.

And the schedule isn’t an excuse anymore.  If the Raheem Morris era had any type of trend or consistency, it was that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers beat the teams they were expected to beat.  Since 2010, Tampa Bay has an 11-1 record versus losing teams.  The single loss was the result of a blown call against the Detroit Lions.

After Sunday, Carolina made it 11-2.  The Pewter Pirates were educated by the 3-8 Panthers.  Blown out.  At home.  By a losing team.

Sheesh.

The Ugly

Raheem Morris has built a reputation on charisma.  He’s forever the optimist, perpetually relaxed, with a smirk plastered to his face.

Scratch that image.  Defensive tackle Brian Price was sent home from the football game after committing a 15-yard personal foul.  Morris, ahem, “discussed” it in his post-game press conference:

“Yes, I sent him to the locker room. I told him go home. F***. Yeah. Because it’s foolish, it’s selfish to your teammates, to everybody in your organization, to your fans. That’s terrible. That’s just selfish behavior to get a 15-yard penalty, in that situation, when that’s all we talk about, when that’s all we discuss. You just can’t do that to your team.”

The normally-reserved Morris seems to have thrown his hands up.  He indirectly acknowledged that he has lost the locker room.

“You know, they’re not listening. They’ve got to listen and we’ve got to do a better job of coaching. That’s all.”

Morris’s job depends on a lot of things.  It’ll depend on how the players — especially Brian Price — respond in the coming days.  It’ll depend on Morris’s contingency plan.  It’ll depend on how the team plays against the Jaguars.  Because as it stands, the players aren’t competing for their head coach.  They’re playing slow, uninspired football, and getting stomped on by every opponent.  Things are ugly in Tampa.  Let’s hope the worst of it is over.

No excuses.

The Titans aren’t the Packers.  They aren’t the Saints, or the Texans, or the 49ers.  They’re not a Super Bowl contender, an elite offense, or a stifling defense.  They’re a team with problems: no offensive playmakers, an underachieving defense, and a crippling inconsistency that threatens their chances at the division crown.

They are, essentially, Tampa’s doppelganger in mediocrity.  And that’s appropriate, because on the road, in the rain, with four fumbles and five turnovers, the Buccaneers beat themselves.

The Good

LeGarrette Blount is an animal.

For the second consecutive week, Tampa’s high-hurdling wrecking ball averaged over five yards per carry en route to eclipsing triple digits on the ground.  And that’s no surprise: entering the contest, Blount was averaging a carry of 10+ yards every 10 attempts, and with runs of 14, 16, and 14 on Sunday, he exceeded that average against the Titans.  His receiving numbers were a bit less expected; Blount finished with a career-high five receptions for a career-high 56 yards, including a game-breaking 35-yarder in the opening quarter.

It begs the question… why isn’t Blount in the lineup on third downs?  Can his pass blocking be that much worse than Kregg Lumpkin’s?  The only thing stopping Tampa’s 240-pound runner from becoming an every-down back, so far, has been the lack of opportunity.

The Bad

The Josh FreemanKellen Winslow connection has been toxic this season.  Winslow is on pace for 76 receptions and 768 yards this season (both measures are right on schedule for the prolific tight end), but eight of Freeman’s 16 interceptions have been forced to Winslow in pressure situations.  It’s not a matter of miscommunication, or poor blocking, or double coverage… they’re just bad decisions.

Exhibit A: on second-and-10, in the midst of another fourth-quarter comeback, Freeman tosses a pick to Tennessee’s Colin McCarthy.  The pass was into tight coverage and thrown behind Winslow, who wasn’t looking for the ball.  McCarthy looked surprised by the throw, but held on, and effectively ended the game for the Buccaneers.

It’s been a problem all season, and it’s a major reason why Tampa Bay ranks 31st in red zone efficiency in 2011.  If I’m Greg Olson, I’d consider leaving Winslow on the sidelines in sensitive situations, if only to encourage Freeman to finish his reads before lofting his passes to the opposing team.

The Ugly

No matter what Michael Clayton tells you, talent doesn’t disappear.  It fades with age, injuries, and poor work ethic, but it’s always there, and Tennessee’s Chris Johnson proved it.  Two seasons ago, Johnson strung together 11-consecutive 100-yard rushing games, culminating in 2,006 rushing yards — fifth most all time.  He’s been quiet in 2011, recording only 509 yards in the ten games leading up to Sunday, and I think the Buccaneer defense shrugged him off as a non-issue.

They paid for it.  Johnson ran for a season-high 190 yards (30% of his season total) against Tampa’s struggling defense, and averaged 8.3 yards per carry despite losing yards on five carries.  Raheem Morris’s defense has been the cure-all for opposing offenses this season, whether it be Jacoby Jones’s troubles at receiver, Curtis Painter’s problems under center, or Roy Williams’s big-play inability.  It’s like the Jim Bates experiment all over again.

And that’s a problem.

It wasn’t a game they were supposed to win.  And pundits relax – they didn’t.  The Buccaneers fell 35-26 to Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay machine, but Tampa left Lambeau with more than a tally in the loss column; they played with more confidence and passion than they had all year, and delivered a performance that would’ve beaten any other team in the NFL.

The Good

Effort.

Twice this season, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers had been accused of giving up during a game.  Surrendering.  Rolling over and submitting.  Against the Texans, it took Albert Haynesworth to provide the voice of reason for the young Buccaneer defense, despite having been signed only six days prior.  Raheem Morris called the team out after the blowout loss to Houston, and — if only for a game — it worked.

And their energy was encapsulated in a single, frantic playLeGarrette Blount secured a hand off, met two tacklers in the heart of the Packer defense, churned his legs, and broke through into the secondary.  He was met by Morgan Burnett and Tramon Williams but powered immediately through them, burned down the sideline, juked Sam Shields, and stiff armed a Green Bay linebacker as he charged into the end zone.

The Bad

They forewent the free agent rush, and now, the Bucs are paying for it.  They decided to pass on Johnathan Joseph and, thankfully, Nnamdi Asomugha, and because of their reluctance, the rest of the league is passing on the Tampa defense.

The lack of depth in the defensive backfield is horrifying.  E.J. Biggers has held his own for most of his brief career, but it doesn’t change the fact that the Buccaneers are deploying Biggers — a young, seventh-round draft pick — against superstar receivers every week.  Biggers’s backup?  Undrafted Elbert Mack and second-year underperformer Myron Lewis, who left the field with scorch marks on his uniform last Sunday.

The safety position is only slightly better, and it’s a concern that must be addressed in the 2012 NFL Draft.  The Buccaneers are a retirement announcement and a guilty verdict away from fielding the worst set of cornerbacks in the league.

The Ugly

Fourth-and-three.  Six minutes remaining.  The Buccaneers trail by two scores near midfield, and…

… and they punt?

I can understand the onside kicks (even the ill-advised second attempt), but the punt completely contradicted Morris’s aggressive approach to the game.  Luckily, Elbert Mack recorded an interception off Aaron Rodgers — a rarity for both parties — and awarded the Bucs new life.  But punting the ball to the NFL’s top offense in the waning minutes of the contest is not a key to victory.

When the Tampa Bay offense was rolling like it was (the game marked the third time in team history where Tampa fielded a 300-yard passer, 100-yard receiver, and 100-yard rusher), earning three yards with the game on the line should be a no-brainer.  If you’re going to throw the game away with onside kicks, Morris, lace your aggression with a little consistency.

Go for it next time.

 

The Good

Head coach Raheem Morris promised “changes” in his post-game press conference.  Believe it when you see it, but it’s something.  The normally level-headed Buccaneer figurehead seemed visibly perturbed by the 37-9 loss to Houston — which was appropriate — but it was a far deviation from his normal, cliched, passive responses to reporters and media.  Maybe, for the first time in ten weeks — scratch that, the first time in his career — he’s not telling the media what they want to hear?

Hey, it’s a start.

The Bad

NFL teams don’t spend much time on tackling.  It’s a basic skill, learned in youth football, practiced in high school, and — usually — perfected in college.  It’s a bread-and-butter element to the sport, and many times, professional teams forgo the tackling drills in favor of more cerebral practices.

Tampa Bay might consider revising that practice schedule.  They surrendered an 80-yard score on the first play of the game — Houston’s Jacoby Jones broke two down-field tackles and raced the distance with, at best, apathetic pursuit — and then gave up a 78-yard touchdown, in which Arian Foster caught a screen, broke three sad tackle attempts by Buccaneer defenders, and scored easily from 234 feet.

There’s no discipline on defense, and it’s killing this team.  They’re on pace to surrender a franchise-worst in total yards, and haven’t even feigned competency through the last few weeks.  That being said, they’re still not the worst unit on this team…

The Ugly

A first down is not a victory, but in Greg Olson’s offense, it sure feels like one.  It’s almost a religious experience when Freeman and company move the chains; every completion seems punctuated with a collective exhale from the fans, and the players — from quarterback, to tight end, to receiver, to lineman — don’t look comfortable employing the scheme.  Each throw is born of hesitation and timidity.  Each receiver is running his routes thoughtfully instead of reactively.

They exude confusion instead of confidence, and the most frustrating thing about Tampa’s offensive struggles?  They don’t seem to be going away.  These Buccaneers — the same team that stormed to 10-6 a season ago — is on the verge of becoming the first team in franchise history without a first-quarter offensive touchdown.  The 1976 squad, one of the worst offenses ever, managed two first-quarter touchdowns in 14 games.

Greg Olson needs to make changes before he makes history.

I think, someday soon, we need to agree upon a definition for the term “draft bust.”  There needs to be some accepted criteria, because as it stands, it has no meaning.  It’s synonymous with some of the biggest flops in NFL history (as it should be), but is also used to categorize successful players who fell short of fan expectations.  Where’s the middle ground?

The brains at ESPN spent the offseason creating the Total Quarterback Rating to help gauge a passer’s impact game-by-game or season-by-season.  It’s a completely situational metric, measuring and ranking players by efficiency instead of the surface statistics with which we’ve become so comfortable.  It adds a bit of perspective to our opinions.

The formula is far beyond my mathematical capabilities, created by a group of statisticians a whole hell of a lot smarter than I am.  So surely, developing a static definition for one of the most thrown around words in NFL circles–“bust”–would be an elementary practice.

The following men might be busts.  They were drafted by the Bucs in the first 100 picks, and none of them lasted more than three seasons in Tampa Bay.  Injuries, contempt, cowardice, and a sheer deficit of talent cost each of them professional success, and if the term “bust” is ever defined, I’m positive that several would fit the bill.

But until then, let’s call them what they are.  They’re potential on which the franchise mortgaged its future.  Educated gambles that didn’t pan out.  Wasted, ill-advised selections in the NFL Draft.

Simply, they’re the five worst picks in Buccaneer history.

5. Chris Colmer (91st overall, 2005)

The Buccaneers nabbed offensive lineman Chris Colmer late in the third round, hoping the NC State standout would overcome some severe physical setbacks and reach the ridiculous potential foreshadowed in an outstanding college career.  Chris missed his senior season with a rare nerve affliction called Parsonage-Turner Syndrome.  He was granted a sixth year of eligibility, showed almost no dropoff in skill or athleticism, and was drafted to be Tampa’s starting tackle.

He failed to crack the lineup in 2005, and over 16 games, never saw on-field action.  The next season, his Parsonage-Turner syndrome flared up and forced him on the Injured Reserve list, and he never regained his football shape.  He was cut in 2007 without logging a single snap in red and pewter.

4. Brett Moritz (44th overall, 1978)

Brett Moritz was a lean, athletic guard who split his college career between Army and the University of Nebraska.  John McKay was in love with him as a prospect, and drafted him in 1978 to add some depth to the offensive line.

Things didn’t exactly work out.

Moritz played in six games during his rookie season and never sniffed the starting lineup.  He proved a liability on special teams, whiffing on easy blocks and hesitating to engage defenders.  Halfway through the season, he injured his back and was relegated to injured reserve.  And like Chris Colmer, he’d never play for the Buccaneers again.

3. Dexter Jackson (58th overall, 2008)

Danny Peebles occupies this spot on most lists.  Peebles was a second-round selection, and outside of Deion Sanders, was the fastest player in the 1989 draft.  His speed and athleticism measured off the charts, but in four years with the NC State Wolfpack, he had almost no college résumé to speak of.

Sound familiar?

Dexter Jackson was the 21st century incarnation of Danny Peebles.  Jackson averaged only 28 catches, 462 yards, and 4 touchdowns a season playing for Division-II Appalachian State, and was inexplicably drafted in the second round by the Bruce Allen regime.  Jackson was selected to be the heir-apparent to deep-threat Joey Galloway, and as the plan dictated, would return kicks until he was ready to run routes against NFL defenses.

But Jackson was afraid of contact.  The minute receiver would crumple to a heap before any defender could lay a hand on him, and his timidity got him cut from the roster in 2009.  The second-round pick finished his career with a miserable zero catches.

2. Booker Reese (32nd overall, 1982; 18th overall, 1983)

The Buccaneers wanted Booker Reese in the first round of the 1982 NFL Draft.  Inexplicably, in a fashion fit only for the fledgling Buccaneers, they selected Sean Farrell.  On accident.  Bucs trainer Pat Marcuccillo, Tampa Bay’s representative at the NFL Draft, had been instructed to fill out two selection cards.  One card had Reese’s name and one had Farrell’s, and Marcuccillo was to wait on a phone call instructing him on which card to turn in.

After some deliberation in the front office, the Buccaneers decided to select Booker Reese.  They made the call to Marcuccillo saying, “We’re not drafting Farrell.  We’re taking Reese.  Turn in the card.” But, according to the legend, Marcuccillo only caught snippets through a bad phone connection: “We’re…drafting Farrell…turn in the card.”

He did as instructed, and the front office panicked.  They traded away the eighteenth overall pick in 1983 to select Reese at the top of the second round.  Booker Reese responded by recording two sacks in 24 games, struggling through injuries, and developing a drug habit that would eventually land him in prison.  Ironically, Sean Farrell spent five seasons anchoring the right side of Tampa’s offensive line and developed into one of the better lineman to pass through Tampa Bay.  John McKay should’ve let Pat Marcuccillo make all of his picks.

1. Bo Jackson (1st overall, 1986)

The Buccaneers drafted Bo Jackson with the first overall pick in 1986, and in four short seasons as a professional running back, he became one of the most electrifying and celebrated athletes in the history of North American sports.

But he did it in the wrong uniform.

Jackson was a dual-sport athlete and Heisman Trophy winner out of Auburn who could’ve made a career in baseball or football.  He hadn’t quite made up his mind about a preferred professional avenue, so Buccaneers owner Hugh Culverhouse did his best to nudge him in one direction.  He chartered a private plane to taxi Jackson on a visit from Alabama to Tampa, effectively voiding Bo’s college baseball eligibility.  And while he was in Florida, several players on the Buccaneers’ roster dissuaded him from joining the team, citing poor ownership and a lack of commitment toward winning.

When the draft rolled around, the Buccaneers spent the first pick in the draft on the phenom runner from Auburn.  They offered him the largest rookie contract in NFL history, but Jackson declined and pursued a career in Major League Baseball.

The Buccaneers never secured his rights, and were never compensated for the pick.  They’re the only team in the modern era to spend the first overall choice in the NFL Draft and receive nothing in return.

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.

THE GOOD

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.

THE BAD

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.

THE UGLY

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.)

BEARS: Play at Wembley for 1st time since American Bowl on 8/3/86. Head coach Lovie Smith was LB coach for TB from 1996-2000…QB Jay Culter won only career start vs. TB (10/5/08 w/ Den.). In career (incl. playoffs), when he has 100+ rating, his teams are 24-0…RB Matt Forte leads NFL with 908 scrimmage yards & is only player in NFL with 500+ rush (527) & 350+ rec. (381) yards. His 908 scrim. yards account for 46.2 pct. of team’s offense, highest in NFL. In only meeting, had 155 scrimmage yards (89 rush, 66 rec.) & rec. TD…WR-KR-PR Devin Hester had 98-yard KR-TD last week & holds NFL record for most PR-TDs (11) & combined KR-TDs (16). Since start of 2010, WR Johnny Knox is averaging 18.7 yards per catch (1,255 yards, 67 rec.), 3rd best mark in NFL (min. 60 catches)…In 15 games vs. TB, DE Julius Pepper has 15.5 sacks, 46-yard INT-TD, 3 FFs & FR. Since entering NFL in 2002, has 93 sacks, 3rd most in league. LB Lance Briggs aims for 3rd in row vs. TB with INT or FF. S Chris Harris had INT in last meeting (12/6/09 w/ Car.)

BUCCANEERS: Play 2nd International Series game in London (’09). QB Josh Freeman threw 1st NFL pass in 2009 London game vs. NE. In career, when he starts & has 100+ rating, Bucs are 7-1…When RB LeGarrette Blount has 18+ carries, team is 7-1. In those 8 games, Blount has rushed for 834 yards (104.3 per game) & 5 TDs. RB Earnest Graham rushed for 109 yards last week, 1st 100-yard game since 9/28/08 (111 vs. GB)…WR Mike Williams has 4+ rec. in 5 of 6 games in ’11. WR Preston Parker leads team with 268 rec. yards. TE Kellen Winslow has catch in 82 games in row. CB Ronde Barber has started 189 consecutive games, most by CB in NFL history. Only player in NFL annals with 25+ sacks (26) & 40+ INTs (41). Has 3.5 sacks, 2 INTs, FF & 24-yard FR-TD in career vs. Chi. DE Adrian Clayborn & LB Mason Foster tie for 2nd among NFC rookies with 2 sacks. CB Aqib Talib had 23-yard INT in 2009 London game. TB ranks 2nd in NFL holding foes to 18.8 avg. drive start on KOs.

What a difference a week makes.  Seven days after the worst loss in team history, the Buccaneers defended Raymond James Stadium against the surging Saints.  They sent the fleur-de-lis back to New Orleans with a division loss and a maimed coach, earning the first quality win of the Raheem Morris era.

THE GOOD

Welcome back, Josh Freeman!  The much-maligned 23-year-old passer put together the four best quarters of the season.  He stood tall against Gregg Williams’s blitz packages and survived the game without surrendering a sack.  He was also the model of efficiency, posting the second 300-yard game of his career and a 95.9 passer rating which was easily his best of the season.

Greg Olson’s offense looks halfway competent when the quarterback isn’t missing wide open receivers.  If Freeman doesn’t fall back into a statistical stasis that plagued him through the first third of the season, then Tampa’s playoff hopes are stronger than ever.  When Freeman is on target — when Tampa’s six-foot-six, 260-pound mega-athlete is shrugging off sacks, dropping bombs, and running for first downs —  the Buccaneers can beat anyone.

Other standouts: It’s like Tanard Jackson never left; the ballhawk was back in the secondary, laying big hits, picking off passes, and supercharging the defensive backfield.  And kudos to the defensive line: there were no sacks, but they kept Drew Brees, Mark Ingram, and Pierre Thomas frustrated for most of the game.

THE BAD

What do Mike Williams and Michael Clayton have in common?  Too much, as of now.  Tampa’s sophomore receiver is on pace to catch 66 balls — one more than his rookie total — but his yardage and touchdowns are suffering horribly.  Mike is on schedule for a pedestrian 645 yards and 3 touchdowns, about five games worth of production less than his record-breaking inaugural season.

He’s been dropping passes at a ridiculous rate (including two drive-killers on third down), and is battling through tight coverage for every reception.  Defenses are paying him extra attention this season — deservedly so, after being torched by him in 2010 — but Williams isn’t finding openings in the coverage.  Most of his receptions this season have been on slants or screens, and he is averaging fewer yards per reception than Jahvid Best, Jonathan Stewart, Matt Forte, Fred Jackson, and Ryan Mathews — all running backs, catching passes from the backfield.

The extra focus on Williams has opened things up for Arrelious Benn and Preston Parker, and the offense is moving well, but a team’s primary wide receiver needs to find openings down the field, and Williams has shown himself incapable through the first six games of 2011.

Other off-days: Jeff Faine.  Your bicep?  Again?

THE UGLY

By all accounts, Kellen Winslow has been the model teammate in Tampa Bay.  And, to be fair, he’s done nothing to show otherwise.

Save for his childish display against the Saints.

The tight end was visibly frustrated after Freeman missed a wide-open throw in the second quarter.  The next play — also to Winslow — was off-target, and Winslow shook his head in contempt.  The third play, another pass to the star tight end, also missed, and Winslow waved dismissively — and condescendingly — at Freeman before heading toward the sideline.

It’s been the only sign of dissension — so far — from a teammate regarding Freeman’s poor throws.  And it’s odd, because Winslow has been one of Freeman’s most outspoken supporters.  But regardless of his feelings, Kellen needs to save his criticism for the locker room.  It’s completely unprofessional and inexcusable, and a throwback to Winslow’s delinquency in Cleveland.

Others worth noting: God bless Sean Payton.  The New Orleans signal-caller spent the first half on the sidelines, calling plays and grimacing sternly… with a broken freaking leg.  Atlanta coach Mike Smith’s appearance is built around his tough-guy persona, but after Sunday, I’m not sure I’d bet on Smith in a back-alley brawl between the two.

The Buccaneers set a new standard for losing last Sunday, tying the franchise record for largest margin of defeat.  It was a soul-shattering loss for the young Bucs, a confidence shaking defeat at the hands of a team who had no business delivering it — a loss so thoroughly devastating, it threatens to derail the foundation of the team and wreck the precedents set by Raheem Morris and Mark Dominik.

But as hard as the loss might be on the inexperienced Buccaneers, it doesn’t even register on the “heartbreak” scale.  The following five games altered careers, divided the fan base, and flipped the fortunes of the franchise:

5. Kiffin’s last game

Four games remaining.  Win one, clinch a playoff berth.  Two?  Maybe the division.  The Buccaneers were a 9-3 NFC juggernaut, only three narrow losses from a furious 12-0.  They were salivating for the postseason after an early exit in 2007.  The defense was elite, the offense was clicking, and the Buccaneers were dominating with bargain-bin players.

It was Jon Gruden’s magnum opus.  His masterpiece.  He’d constructed a powerhouse with Jeff Garcia under center.  With a faded Warrick Dunn and Earnest Graham sharing carries.  With Michael Clayton, Ike Hilliard, and three-team washout Antonio Bryant burning up the sidelines.  And with Monte Kiffin’s legendary defense on the other side of the field.

Through Week 13, anyway.

Kiffin announced his departure before a Week 14 match up with division rival Carolina.  The Buccaneers — and their playoff dreams — completely crumbled in the twilight of that season.  The defense wilted, allowing 31 points per game over the last four, culminating in a humiliating loss to the cellar-dwelling Oakland Raiders.

Oakland entered the game averaging a 19th-century 15.4 points per contest.  Things started — and nearly ended — well.  Tampa Bay held a 10-point lead with 10 minutes remaining.  Oakland quarterback JaMarcus Russell seemed flustered in the pocket and about to shatter under pressure.

Less than two minutes later, Tampa Bay was trailing 28-24.  Seven minutes after that, the Raiders iced the game 31-24.  Monte Kiffin shuffled off to greener pastures, and Jon Gruden — standing knee-deep in the ruins of his pièce de résistance — was fired three weeks after the loss.

4. The Repus Bowl

The 1976 Buccaneers hold a clever distinction as the worst team of all time.  The 0-16 2008 Lions gave a run for the title, but that Detroit team had talent, and played a lot of teams close.  There was a feeling, weekly, that it might be Detroit’s day.  That they might finally break that 8-game, 10-game, 13-game losing streak.

No one felt that in 1976.

John McKay’s Buccaneers took a few games to the wire in their inaugural season — against the 2-12 Bills and the 6-8 Dolphins — but the losses got so monotonous and predictable, there was a sense that the Bucs might not ever win.

That feeling was especially strong after the Seahawks game.

Seattle — Tampa’s sister expansion team — entered the contest a pitiful 0-5, and neither of them had shown any hint of belonging through the first third of the season.  It might’ve been either team’s only chance for a victory in 1976.

The game was dubbed the “Repus Bowl” — a backward spelling of “Super” — poking fun at the ineptitude of each young squad.  Both sides played well (collectively, the Buccaneers played better than they would for the rest of the season), but after pulling within three points on the franchise’s first touchdown pass, the Buccaneers couldn’t seal the victory in the final quarter.

They lost 13-10, and — through 2008 — were lovingly remembered as the only winless team in league history.  Their 0-26 record through their first 26 games remains one of the most baffling and hilarious measures of ineptitude in professional sports.

3. Frank Corral sends the Rams to the Super Bowl

There was a problem with the offense in 1979.  The Buccaneers finished 10-6 and atop the competitive NFC Central, but ended the season with a bottom-of-the-barrel offense.  They beat the Vikings 12-10.  They bested the Lions 16-14, and the Bears 17-13.  They defeated Kansas City 3-0 in a white-water monsoon.

Thirty-two years later, it’s the 1979 Steelers — the “Steel Curtain” — with the awards and the press clippings.  But McKay’s 3-4 scheme was better; the Buccaneers ranked first in points allowed, first in passing yards given up, first in total yards given up, first in yards surrendered per play, and they carried the team into the Conference Championship Game against the L.A. Rams.

Earlier in 1979, three months before their playoff meeting, the Buccaneers defeated the Rams 21-7 and completely shut out the Los Angeles offense.  After the game, L.A.’s offense hit its stride, and their double-headed backfield shredded the rest of the league; running backs Wendell Tyler and Cullen Bryant combined to average 141 yards of offense per game, were proven threats both running and catching, and combined to form an indomitable, versatile offensive attack.

Both parties — Tampa Bay’s stifling defense, and Los Angeles’s volatile rushing offense — showed up for the NFC Championship.  The Rams bludgeoned the Tampa Bay defense for 216 rushing yards, but struggled for every inch.  Los Angeles’s normally-explosive backfield slammed into John McKay’s 11-man wall 53 times during the game, and the Rams only mustered nine points — three short field goals of the leg of the horribly inconsistent Frank Corral.  But nine points was enough.

Hell, two points was enough.

Per usual, the Tampa Bay offense imploded.  They finished with only 177 yards of offense — 66 of them coming on two plays, both by explosive young receiver Larry Mucker — and no points.  Quarterbacks Mike Rae and Doug Williams combined to go 4 for 26 (15%), 54 yards, 0 TD, 1 INT, and an illustrious 23.55 passer rating, and the lack of offense — a season-long problem — cost Tampa Bay a trip to Super Bowl XIV, and a chance to be remembered as an all-time defense.

But it’s probably for the better.  The “Creamsicle Curtain” doesn’t sound quite right.

2. The Monday Night Meltdown

The Peyton Manning legend was born in October 2003, in the early hours of a Tuesday morning.

It’s the game that shifted the Indianapolis Colts from up-and-comer to league powerhouse and sabotaged Tampa’s 2003 season.  It tore the mystique from the heart of the Super Bowl defense.  The nation watched as Manning dissected them to the point of rupture, and the bleeding never stopped.

They were mortal, after all.

The Buccaneers were rolling after a Super Bowl victory in 2002.  They faced off against the surging Colts on Monday Night Football, allowing a league-best 7.3 points per game.  Indianapolis was 4-0 on the season.  Peyton Manning was building what would be the best season of his young career.  The week before the Monday Night showdown, Manning and his compatriots hung 55 points on the hapless Saints, and were set to steamroll any defense in their path.

Even the NFL’s best.

For three quarters, Tampa’s offense shot sparks through the scoreboard.  The defenders swarmed the Colts like a cloud of locusts.  Indianapolis was on the verge of collapse — down 35-14 with four minutes and change remaining — before Peyton Manning came to life.

The Colts scored two touchdowns on seven offensive plays.  With 1:41 remaining, Manning engineered a five-play, 85-yard game-tying drive, abusing replacement corner Tim Wansley for huge chunks of yardage.  A one-yard touchdown run knotted the game at 35, with less than a minute on the clock.

Indianapolis forced a punt in overtime.  14 plays later, Mike Vanderjagt would miss the game-winning field goal, and the Buccaneer faithful would breathe a sigh of relief.  But a penalty flag — Simeon Rice, leaping — would give Vanderjagt another chance.

The field goal — one of the record 37 “consecutive” that Vanderjagt made that season — clanked off the right upright, but tumbled in behind the crossbar.

Kick is good.  Colts win 38-35.

Gruden’s spoke during the post-game press conference.  Instead of his normal, cliched coachspeak, he offered Tampa Bay a brief — but sincere — apology. “I’m sorry,” he said. “Man, I’m sorry.”

1. Warner to Proehl

On January 23 — three weeks after the new millennium — the Bucs met the Rams in St. Louis’s Trans World Dome.

For the second time in franchise history, the Bucs were playing the Rams for a Super Bowl berth.  But unlike that 1979 Rams team — the tough defense and reliable running attack — Dick Vermeil’s squad boasted four future Hall of Famers on offense: quarterback Kurt Warner, receivers Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt, and running back Marshall Faulk.  Faulk was in the prime of one of the most dominant careers in football history.  They were the Greatest Show on Turf, and they were unstoppable.

Until they met the ’99 Bucs.

Warner looked flustered for most of the game.  Through the first fifty-five minutes of play, the league MVP had led his team to just five points, throwing no touchdowns and 3 picks.  Faulk — one of the most prolific athletes in the history of the game — was held to 49 yards on 20 touches.  Bruce and Holt combined for 10 catches and 90 yards, and St. Louis’s historic offensive production became a panicked memory.  Monte Kiffin had neutralized four of the greatest players of all-time, game planning perfectly for Vermeil’s high-octane attack.  The Bucs had terminated the league’s elite offense and were four minutes from a Super Bowl.

But they forgot about Ricky Proehl.  The 31-year old washout receiver had spent the last six season underperforming for various teams.  He joined St. Louis in 1998, and after a brief renaissance, faded back into obscurity for the 1999 season.  He had 33 regular-season receptions (a measly two catches per contest) and no touchdowns, but Proehl torched Tampa Bay that day.

He finished with six catches and a game-high 100 yards receiving, including a 30-yard bomb from Kurt Warner which arced mere inches over cornerback Brian Kelly’s outstretched fingers.  Proehl made a ridiculous overhead catch and tumbled into the endzone, giving the Rams an 11-6 lead they would never relinquish.

The Tampa Bay offense gets most of the attention in the retrospectives.  With a chance to tie, receiver Bert Emanuel had a controversial third-down drop.  The ball thudded to the turf on the following play, the Bucs’ Super Bowl aspirations shattering as it hit the ground.

But it was Ricky Proehl who changed the game.  The forgotten receiver who sent the Rams to the Super Bowl.  The man Kiffin forgot to game plan against.

The closing act in the Greatest Show on Turf.

The Ugly

Oh boy.  The foundation is cracking.  The sky is falling.  The walls are closing in.  The Buccaneers weren’t as good as their 3-1 record (and the numbers showed as much), but surely they’re not this bad.  This soft.  This slow.  This inept.

Not bad enough to lose 48-3?  Are they?

It’ll go down as the worst loss of the Raheem Morris era and one of the least inspired, least disciplined games in the history of the franchise.

The trudged into the locker room down three touchdowns at halftime, and there was no sense of magic — none of that Josh Freeman electricity — in the air.  From the opening kickoff, it felt like an old-fashioned, behind-the-woodshed, man-versus-boy ass-whooping; it was Joe Calzaghe vs. Jeff Lacy; it was Olajuwon vs. Robinson; it was Scott Stevens obliterating Eric Lindros.

But, most simply, it was hard to watch.

Freeman couldn’t throw.  Mike Williams couldn’t catch.  Morris left his defense in Tampa; the front four couldn’t rush, the back four couldn’t cover, and the three in between looked lost and hesitant.  There were no throwing windows, no running lanes, and really, no hope for victory after Freeman’s pick-six.

The offensive struggles continue (read: intensify), and our star players from 2010 have yet to flash this season.  The future looks bleak, with games against the Saints, Bears, Texans, and Packers occupying the next five slots on the schedule, and Tampa’s coaching staff needs to find a quick-fix for the plethora of issues that plague this team before they fall to 3-7 and out of contention.

All in all, it was a miserable, nauseating, painful way to lose.  But the season is far from over.  When we see Mike Williams parading around One Buc in his fur coat — a la Michael Clayton — it might be a sign of coming disaster.  But until then, the Buccaneers will take the game in stride and (hopefully) use it as a learning experience.

And there is a bright side buried in the loss: Tampa should be extra-prepared for New Orleans next Sunday, after their Week Five bye in San Francisco.