TAMPA, Fla. — For five seconds after the question, Josh McCown remained silent, unable to find the words to capture the frustration burning inside him.
He raised his right palm. He pursed his lips. He looked toward the floor, avoiding eye contact with the crowd that waited for him to explain his tears in the locker room following the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ latest hollow Sunday.
Frustration is common throughout the NFL, but this moment after the Bucs’ 27-17 loss to the Atlanta Falcons at Raymond James Stadium felt different. Rarely are tears shed by team leaders, coaches or captains, for public consumption because of the stigma that accompanies the image: It suggests weakness, or worse, a fissure in the foundation of what those men are trying to build.
It’s too early to say if the Lovie Smith Era is destined for a brief shelf life, but McCown’s tears were rare insight into how human the pursuit of success in the NFL can be, how each man feels as if there’s a brief window to make the most of opportunity, and if time is squandered in that chase, emotions run high.
"One and eight," the veteran quarterback said, rubbing his right eye. "One and eight. And one and eight. You know what? You want to give your teammates and your coaches and your fans and family and everybody here better than that. And it just hurts. It hurts."
McCown didn’t make Tampa Bay his destination in free agency to be part of the worst team in the NFL’s worst division. Smith didn’t give the former Chicago Bears backup a two-year, $10 million contract to be part of a 1-8 group that invents new ways to lose each week. Their partnership was born with the idea that McCown would serve as a composed veteran to bridge the Bucs to a contending future, to help instill Smith’s vision of winning football, to make good on an opportunity to become a franchise name after spending many of his 12 NFL seasons toiling as a reserve.
Instead, McCown is a face of the problem, not a teacher to young teammates about how to make winning a habit. His struggle, which continued with two more interceptions Sunday in his fourth start this season, is indicative of how far the Bucs are from becoming relevant.
Coming up short each week, that’s what hurts, McCown said in an impassioned voice. These postgame autopsies, rehashing another disaster, always sting.
"This game, man, you go and prepare with guys every week, and coaches, and they grind it," he said. "And everybody puts their time in, you work so hard, and you lay it out there for each other, and when you walk off and come up short week-in and week-out, that hurts. That’s what hurts. And you realize that fans, they come to the game and whatever is going on in their life, they want to come and be in this stadium to watch us win football games to bring them joy. And so, all of that encompassing, man, to not be able to do that, to not be able to give that to ourselves, our teammates, our coaches, our fans, it just hurts. It just hurts, man."
The hurt is real, and the hurt is consistent.
The Bucs, built on the concept that past failures would not be tolerated with a proven winner as coach, have continued to field a poor product.
"Losses, of course, are piling up," Smith said. "Too many."
McCown is well aware of that, too, and his candor was refreshing when considering that some of his teammates likely don’t care far enough about this season’s stink, this collection of 16 games just another notch to them in what they hope are lucrative individual careers.
At age 35, McCown is the Bucs’ oldest player, and the NFL’s winding ways have humbled him. He has served as both student and mentor. This run with Tampa Bay probably is his last true chance to be someone on fall Sundays.
To some, 1-8 is just a record. To him, it’s an anticipated career break wasted.
"I understand where I’m at in my career, and as you get older, the opportunities are less and less," McCown said. "No matter if you’re a franchise quarterback or not, when you’re 35 years old, you know that the clock is ticking."
Sunday’s result proved to be the latest mess that ate at him. There were the blown chances on both sides of the ball, after Tampa Bay gained a 17-16 lead with 14:18 left in the fourth quarter.
There were the 10 penalties for 79 yards, many whistles of the ticky-tacky variety that revealed how undisciplined the Bucs can be.
There were his fifth and sixth interceptions this season, none more hurtful than Dwight Lowery’s fourth-quarter pick after a deflection by Robert Alford on an attempted pass to Vincent Jackson in the corner of the end zone. This pain went deep.
"It gives you perspective," McCown said of the adversity the Bucs face. "It gives you an opportunity to stretch your faith, whatever you believe in, to stretch yourself, your gut as a man and your resolve."
These tears were revealing of the pit inside McCown’s stomach following another defeat, of the broken hopes that weigh on him and should weigh more on others in his locker room. The sloppy play. The blown leads. The losing mentality. These Bucs won’t become better unless they treat losing like an epidemic to be overcome.
"We knew the adversity would come," McCown said. "But to this extent, nobody wants that."
Above all, his tears were about lost time, his time. His window continues to close, and the Bucs are at a loss to ease his pain.