TAMPA, Fla. — The difference between relief and gut-wrenching pain on fall Sundays is small, and this season the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have made a nasty habit of becoming too familiar with the wrong outcome.
A 19-13 overtime loss to the Minnesota Vikings was the latest sick thrill ride, a game that featured the Bucs falling behind 10-0 and looking incapable of producing a single point, before rallying for 13 consecutive in the fourth quarter, before allowing rookie Teddy Bridgewater to lead a clown car of an offense on a nine-play, 61-yard drive capped by Blair Walsh’s 38-yard field goal that forced overtime as time expired. Soon after, Anthony Barr’s 27-yard touchdown return on Austin Seferian-Jenkins’ fumble was the final crazy twist that should have made the Bucs feel nauseous as a stunned crowd at Raymond James Stadium shuffled away.
Two bad teams met Sunday, and the Vikings proved the lesser of two evils in an ugly victory, a win that should have been the Bucs’ to claim. Yes, Tampa Bay’s 1-6 season features follies like 56-14 against the Atlanta Falcons and 48-17 against the Baltimore Ravens, but it also includes near-misses like Sunday’s and others against the Carolina Panthers, St. Louis Rams and New Orleans Saints that show how Lovie Smith’s team fails to own a key ingredient for sustained success: Urgency in moments that determine victory and defeat.
Good teams have it, and bad ones are left searching. Guess which category the Bucs fall under.
"It’s a missed opportunity," Bucs offensive tackle Demar Dotson said. "We should have won this football game. I’ll say it all day. This is a game we should have won, so to come up with a loss, it’s sickening to the stomach."
Dotson should know, because he celebrated after Mike Glennon connected with Seferian-Jenkins for a 7-yard touchdown pass with 2:02 left in the fourth quarter. The well-executed play gave the Bucs a 13-10 lead, and given how well Tampa Bay’s defense had performed most of the second half, a victory at that point felt assumed by Dotson and likely others. It’s hard to blame him.
Such a result would have made for an interesting narrative. The Atlanta Falcons and Carolina Panthers both lost Sunday, so a Bucs victory would have helped Tampa Bay gain ground in a miserable NFC South. Instead of continued speculation about wide receiver Vincent Jackson and running back Doug Martin with the trade deadline looming at 4 p.m. Tuesday, the Bucs would have exited Sunday with life and a favorable schedule ahead.
But Walsh’s kick sailed through the uprights, and Barr sprinted down his sideline and strode into the end zone. The Bucs proved themselves as a bad football team again.
"What I said to those guys is that we’re disappointed in this game, and you have to look at the big picture," Smith said. "Today, we’re not going to throw a party after today, when you lose a game like that. If you look at the big picture, right now, we’re in the same position we were when we started the game. As a football team, last time we played, we were blown out. We were competitive this week. But now, you have to be able to finish. As a young team, we’re seeing small improvements."
That comment seems out of touch. The Bucs ended without losing much ground in the NFC South, but talk of competing for a division title seems like a Candyland conversation until Tampa Bay proves it can be a consistent winner. Teams taken seriously don’t allow an average rookie quarterback beat them at home after a bye week.
So the Bucs are where they deserve to be. This will be an interesting week to see if Jackson and Martin remain in pewter and red. This season isn’t going anywhere, so if either brings appropriate value from a suitor, why not deal either and try to find a future star in the draft?
The hard truth is that Jackson and Martin are overrated nationally. Jackson was held to one catch for 13 yards Sunday, and he’s had three games this season with three or fewer catches. Martin was limited to 27 yards on 10 carries and looks like he has reached his ceiling with the Bucs, that promising rookie season a distant memory. A move would be good for his future.
Everything should be considered, because the Bucs don’t do much of anything right at the same time. The problems go beyond the urgency in key moments, too. The defense buckled late, but lost in the Bucs’ fourth-quarter rally was that Tampa Bay’s offense was an embarrassing mess for three and a half quarters, no different than it had looked for most of the six previous games.
Now, the Bucs are like a leaky pipe that bursts in different areas after being patched. One phase performs well and another falters. One phase rises to the occasion and another blows it.
"It’s the story of our life right now," Bucs cornerback Alterraun Verner said. "In the Panthers game we battled back and ended up losing. With the Rams, we battled back and ended up losing. We have to learn from these games and find a win like we did during the Steelers game."
The positive news is that the NFC South remains terrible, so who knows what can happen if the Bucs develop a spark and string together victories? That’s the largest frustration in watching them. An average or even below-average record could be enough to make the playoffs this season, and they’re blowing it.
True contenders know when they own the DNA to take advantage of opportunities they must make their own. After Sunday, the Bucs proved once more that they seem far away.