Bucs, Schiano send message against Giants

September 17, 2012

TAMPA, Fla. — More than a few messages were delivered by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday afternoon in their second foray with head coach Greg Schiano — and one was promptly returned to sender by an angry recipient, a Mr. Thomas Coughlin of northern New Jersey, to be precise.

It was the exchange that had the football world abuzz Monday: The post-game tiff between Schiano and Coughlin, the New York Giants head coach, that was dissected on national and local airwaves, all over the web, inside the Bucs locker room — and on the podium at One Buc Place, where Schiano conducted his weekly news conference late Monday afternoon.

The opinions poured in on both sides of the argument: Whether Schiano was wrong in violating an unwritten rule and trampled on NFL etiquette by sending his defense barreling into the Giants’ kneel-down formation on the final play of a 41-34 loss to New York.

Coughlin and his team made no attempt to hide their contempt for Schiano’s play-to-the-last-second tactic. They characterized it as a bush-league cheap shot that could have caused injuries (and, in fact, knocked Giants quarterback Eli Manning over) and stressed that it has no place in the NFL.

The hard-nosed Giants coach chastised Schiano on the field moments after the game, and then expressed his unhappiness over the move to the media. But Schiano stuck to his guns following the game, saying a team should play the game until the last possible second.

The man who resurrected Rutgers University’s football program reiterated his stance Monday, explaining that the maneuver is in the Buc playbook and worked well for him with the Scarlet Knights.

“That’s a play we’ve done. We’ve caused a fumble four times in the last five years with that play,” Schiano said in response to the opening question.

“And it’s something that we practice. To me, it’s a clean, hard, tough, finish-the-game play. Some people disagree with that. It’s certainly what makes the world go 'round. Everybody has opinions. But I don’t have any remorse or regret. It’s clean, hard football. It was no sneak attack. We were down, ready to go. And that’s how we do it all the time. If you’ve studied any tape of us, that’s how we do it.”

Schiano then declined to talk further about the matter, focusing instead of what he viewed as a disappointing loss, given that his team was completely unable to stop Manning’s 510-yard aerial assault, getting outscored 25-7 in the fourth quarter. “We have a football game that we should have won and we didn’t,” he said. “That’s what I’m most frustrated with right now. . . . And we’ve turned our attention to the Cowboys.”

But plenty others were talking about the controversy Monday.

Perhaps surprisingly, Schiano had some supporters from the NFL ranks. Former Philadelphia Eagles quarterback and ESPN analyst Ron Jaworski liked the play. “There’s no doubt Tom Coughlin owes Greg Schiano an apology for how he reacted after the game,’’ Jaworski said on the air. “I’m disappointed in the response. The Giants mantra has always been ‘Finish, finish, finish.’ . . . I don't want to hear Eli and Coughlin whining.”

You might have expected Mike Ditka — renowned for his tough-as-nails, old-school demeanor — to have sided with Coughlin. Wrong. The former Bears and Saints head coach, Hall of Fame tight end and ESPN personality backed Schiano: “You’ve got pads and a helmet on. The game’s not over. Play."

But former Baltimore Ravens coach Brian Billick — now a FOXSports.com  analyst — was critical of Schiano’s move in a column today. “I agree with Schiano on one thing . . . it is not illegal, but it is definitely dirty. However he tries to sell himself on the idea that it is his team’s fighting until the very end, that isn’t going to fly with the other coaches of the NFL, or any level.

“I understand that Schiano is trying to overhaul his team, both physically and competitively, but this isn’t the way to do it. Order your team to fight hard, but diving at the knees of offensive lineman on a play in which they are conceding is not fighting; it’s taking a cheap shot. Tom Coughlin had every right to be enraged.”

Not surprisingly, Bucs players did their best to stay out of the fray Monday morning. Perhaps the most revealing comment was made after the game Sunday by defensive end Michael Bennett, who said, "I've been in the NFL for a while and seen a lot of things. Whatever the coach asks us to do, that's our job. It's like someone asks you write a story about something you don't want to write about, you still do it. That's what coach believes in. That's how we play the game."

On Monday, players seemed eager to put the matter behind them. One player, defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, refused to even discuss it with the media. Others deflected the question while expressing their faith in Schiano’s approach.

“I don’t buy into the media stuff or watch ESPN or NFL Network after the game, so I don’t really know what’s going on,” linebacker Mason Foster said. “But that’s what we’re coached to do: Keep playing."

“Honestly, I don’t know what you’re talking about,” linebacker Adam Hayward said. “I don’t know what everyone’s doing. All I know is we’re taught to play to the end. So that’s it.”

Defensive lineman Roy Miller was more outspoken. “I’d do anything for that coach,” he said. “I believe in everything he coaches.”

Miller said he didn’t believe there would be any retribution from other teams who didn’t appreciate the Bucs’ rush-the-kneel-down strategy. Tampa Bay’s starting nose tackle was in the middle of the scrum, where punches were thrown.

“They just responded to what they perceived the situation (to be). They didn’t see it the way we saw it,” he said. “We had a chance at the end of the game to get the ball back, and it just didn’t happen. But if you look at it the way you should, you understand and move on.”

Miller acknowledged he’d never been instructed to bust in on a kneel-down before but added, “We don’t plan to be in that situation again.”

For what it’s worth, the Bucs were in the reverse of that situation in Week 1. Holding onto a 16-10 lead over Carolina at Raymond James Stadium, Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman knelt down three straight times to  run out the final two minutes on the play clock, taking losses of 2, 3 and 2 yards.

The Panthers didn’t try to crash the offensive line and force a fumble, in hopes of making off with an implausible 17-16 victory.

And there may be a problem Schiano has created for himself: In trying to imbue a new, never-say-die attitude and build a new winning culture on his team, he may have alienated others in the league with Sunday’s final play. Just because he used it with success at Rutgers doesn’t mean many of his NFL colleagues will take kindly to him employing on the game’s ultimate stage, not with the potential risk of serious injuries to starting linemen or the quarterback.

But whether you agree with Schiano or not, the new man in charge appears to have changed the mindset of a team that was an NFL laughing stock in 2011. They sent a message by going into the Giants’ stadium and taking the defending Super Bowl champs down to the wire, holding a 14-point lead in the first half and an eight-point edge with some six minutes to play.

They just couldn’t stop one of the game’s great quarterbacks when it counted, and heavy blitzing didn’t get the job done.  Manning amassed 227 yards, in fact, on his final nine plays. “Eli did a great job of directing protection, you could see him,” Schiano said. “He threw it before we got there . . . and they made plays in the back end.”

Schiano’s glum demeanor Monday was telling in itself. There was no consolation in nearly knocking off the Giants, as big an upset as that would have been. “As a team we’ve got to get better; as a coaching staff, we’ve got to get better,” he said. “Because again, we had an opportunity there and credit goes to the Giants. They found a way to win, and we didn’t.”

To the Giants’ chagrin, that didn’t stop Schiano from trying at game’s end.

It didn’t earn him any popularity points in greater New York. But the last-second defensive charge appears to have had a unifying effect on his players. And it’s symbolic of a fundamental shift in the team’s determination to go all-out, all the time, something that was sorely lacking last season as 10 straight losses piled up.

In the end, that may be the biggest message of all sent by the Bucs.