TAMPA, Fla. — After a week that featured a controversial meeting with a locker-room bully (guard Richie Incognito) and a trade with the New England Patriots for a brute force (guard Logan Mankins), it’s easy to forget that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers close the preseason Thursday night.
The finale at Raymond James Stadium against the Washington Redskins seems like an after-thought, given the whiplash developments since Sunday: Roster trimming to meet the 75-man limit by late Tuesday afternoon, the walk on the wild side with Incognito and the trade for Mankins that made the Bucs’ guard situation less sketchy.
"To develop our football team, this is an important game for us, for some of our backups that didn’t play a lot last week," Bucs coach Lovie Smith said Tuesday. "We weren’t pleased with how some of our backups, our seconds, played. So we want to get a good look at them."
All that is true. Still, it won’t make Thursday any less boring for anyone interested in a glimpse of the real thing.
Want to see how quarterback Josh McCown will mesh with a still-in-progress offensive line? Sorry, prepare for a heavy helping of backups Mike Glennon and Mike Kafka. Want to see defensive tackle Gerald McCoy continue his campaign of terror? Sorry, the Bucs would be wise to keep him caged until turning him loose on the Carolina Panthers in Week 1.
"Guys who get in the last preseason game, you see a lot of guys make mistakes and be uncharacteristic of what they usually do, because they’re trying to impress, trying to make a play," McCoy said. "You don’t have to do that. Just go out there and do what it takes to make plays."
For bubble players, making plays Thursday could save them from the cutting room floor.
With the deadline for the 53-man limit looming at 4 p.m. Saturday, this will be a big game for close calls. If defensive end Larry English adds to his two-sack total from last Saturday against the Buffalo Bills in a large way, does that mean the end of Da’Quan Bowers’ time with the Bucs? If running back Jeff Demps doesn’t cause a few fireworks with his feet, does his Tampa Bay career come to an end?
No matter how it arrives, Smith should want to see more pop from backups. The Bucs’ starters on defense, particularly McCoy, have looked stellar throughout three preseason games. The starters on offense, meanwhile, have improved each week since the slog against the Jacksonville Jaguars on Aug. 8 and looked promising in racing to a 24-0 halftime lead against the Bills.
But the reserves have been far less of a success story. Take last Saturday at Ralph Wilson Stadium. Buffalo outscored Tampa Bay 14-3 in the second half, and four of the Bucs’ five drives after halftime resulted in punts and went no longer than 21 yards. Three of those drives went no longer than 4.
Not good enough. Not enough depth.
"Maybe it’s not a win or loss that goes toward the actual regular-season record, but I think you can definitely grab some more improvement and become a better player this preseason game," Bucs tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins said.
"So (we’re) just working on the fundamentals, getting better, jumping to get balls and doing what we do, playing football and having fun."
Sure, for players with a secure roster spot, Thursday will be fun — a relaxed evening soaking in the scene at Raymond James Stadium before the results count for real. For them, this will be the calm before a 16-game storm, a catch-your-breath moment after the past month’s sprint through all the prep work.
But for others, fun will be found in a future secured in pewter and red after Saturday evening. Everything — including play Thursday in a so-called meaningless game — will be taken into account when the toughest roster calls must be made.
For offensive personnel, that includes producing without coordinator Jeff Tedford, who will be absent because of a medical procedure performed Monday morning. Tampa Bay’s offensive staff will work together to take on Tedford’s game-day responsibilities.
"Our staff will, of course, pick up the slack, and we’ll go from there," Smith said.
For defensive personnel, that includes managing a heavy dose of Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins, who has outperformed the more-heralded Robert Griffin III in the preseason with 370 yards passing and four touchdowns to one interception. Containment will be key.
"Don’t overthink it," McCoy said. "You’ve been playing football your whole life. You’ve been in training camp since July 25, whatever it was. Just don’t overthink it. It’s another practice, really. It’s the same way you approach practice. You go out there, give it your all, work to get better. Do the same thing."
After a wild week of cuts, meetings and a headline-grabbing trade, the Bucs will work to improve in an actual game — something that’s welcomed as their evolution continues.