TAMPA, Fla. — For Greg Schiano, these last four games are no playoff push, a sprint toward possible January riches. But they could kick the nerves about whether he’ll spend another December here.
“We’re doing things to find ways to win the game,” he said, after his Tampa Bay Buccaneers routed the Buffalo Bills 27-6 on Sunday at Raymond James Stadium. “Against good football teams, instead of winning games, we found ways to lose games (early in the season). We were in games, but we found ways to lose games. Literally, you look at it and say we invented ways to lose some games. I’m just worried about where we are now.”
Where the Bucs stand now, after their fourth victory in five games, is a far cry from the 0-8 eyesore that all but stamped an “RIP” on Schiano’s Tampa Bay tenure. On Sunday, they rebounded from a 27-6 collapse against the Carolina Panthers last week with the flip version of a forgettable afternoon at Bank of America Stadium.
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This was easy. This was impressive. This was, by the second half, simply boring.
It was a thorough beating of a bad AFC East team. Turns out, the Bucs’ fourth victory was sealed before the thousands of Bills fans here had a chance to settle into their seats to enjoy the sun, a rare commodity throughout the NFL on this day. (Buffalo was a teeth-chattering 26 degrees when the Bucs and Bills kicked off.)
Yes, all Tampa Bay needed was an 80-yard touchdown run from Bobby Rainey to brush aside their visitors from the Great White North, something that happened 18 seconds into the first quarter. An avalanche only began there: Two touchdown passes by Mike Glennon, both in the first half, and two field goals from Rian Lindell followed.
A decisive December? Schiano needs one, and this blowout followed the script that could guarantee his survival.
“This week in practice, we challenged each other — coaches and players alike — to really make sure they had the details,” Schiano said.
Those details were most obvious on defense. Bills quarterback EJ Manuel, playing the rookie role to perfection, was bullied on an afternoon when Buffalo was held to 214 yards. Most of that total — 144 yards — came after Tampa Bay had raced to a 24-3 halftime lead.
How’s this for harassment? The Bucs sacked Manuel seven times with six different players. The first-round pick looked worthy of the sixth round in completing 18 of 33 passes for 184 yards with four interceptions, two by future Pro Bowl linebacker Lavonte David.
Bills running back C.J. Spiller, meanwhile, was MIA most of the day, finishing with 22 yards on 11 carries. Last Sunday, he took a meat cleaver to the Atlanta Falcons’ defense in running for 149 yards with one touchdown.
Different game, different story, different Bucs.
“I’d say that’s a good day right there,” Bucs safety Dashon Goldson said. “Big time. We did some good things. Our team can build on that next week.”
That’s the trick. By anyone’s standards, this was no perfect day. Glennon only completed 9 of 25 passes for 90 yards (a season-low) with two interceptions (matching a season-high set in Week 4).
Still, the Bucs will take minor imperfections after the major headaches of September and November. This is a team that, since Week 10, has healed itself after embarrassments and unnecessary, childlike drama.
Part of that is because of momentum. Part of that is because of more confidence gained throughout the locker room. Part of that is because Josh Freeman is serving as a healthy scratch in Minnesota instead of here, his shortcomings elsewhere.
Certainly, the Bucs can’t escape 0-8, a record that was every bit as ugly as it sounds. They can’t wish away a 21-point loss to the Panthers last week. They can’t change who they are.
But this much can’t be argued: Their perception has changed for the better, and that should count for something.
“I think we’re playing really good football right now, and all of it starts with our defense,” Glennon said.
There should be more good to come too. Go ahead, study the schedule: The San Francisco 49ers are vulnerable and the St. Louis Rams are average at best.
Only a visit to New Orleans to close the season looks beyond the Bucs’ grasp now.
Schiano returns in 2014? It’s possible with a December to remember, a rebound after a brutal fall.
“It was a good team victory,” Schiano said, “one that the guys will enjoy here.”
He said those words deep in Raymond James Stadium, behind the same podium where he had relived so many disappointments. On this day, though, there was a different analysis, one that if repeated in the season’s closing weeks can only mean good things for his future here.
Win-or-go-home January football won’t happen in Tampa Bay. But even now, this late in a season that seemed lost long ago, Schiano is coaching for next year.