The Real Problem with Gerald McCoy

Gerald McCoy has a problem. He’s a Tampa Bay Buccaneer.

That is really the only explanation for why he is on the receiving end of so much hate and heat for, really, nothing at all.

It isn’t a question that McCoy is one of the best interior defensive linemen in the NFL. Since 2012, McCoy has collected 27.5 sacks, more than any other defensive tackle in that span.

While sacks are not the sole measure of what makes a defensive lineman great, one of the loudest criticisms of McCoy is his lack of playmaking ability which is strange given his superior ability to reach the quarterback.

In truth, the recent uptick in McCoy has nothing to do with his actual play on the field. It has everything to do with the fact that he has played for one of the worst franchises in the NFL over his entire career.

Since the Bucs drafted McCoy in 2010, Tampa Bay has gone 29-56. A lot of things have to go wrong for a franchise to lose nearly twice as many games as its won in six seasons.

Drafted third overall in 2010, expectations for McCoy were always high. In his first two seasons, there were questions whether he would live up to them as he appeared injury-prone, ending both years with biceps injuries.

McCoy remained relatively healthy since 2011 as his trip to injured reserve last year was more the result of the futility of the Bucs’ 2-12 record than his inability to play. According to the Tampa Tribune‘s Roy Cummings, McCoy wanted to play through it but Lovie Smith felt it wiser in the long run to shut him down.

McCoy certainly cannot be criticized for his toughness. Even now he’s playing through a shoulder injury that’s had him on the injury report since Week 3:

This toughness often gets a bad rap because McCoy is a nice guy. Maybe too nice for some. He frequently helps opponents up from the ground, and his “Mic’d Up” performance against Tennessee drew some ire for his jovial demeanor amid the complete beating the Bucs took in Week 1.

Yet, McCoy’s friendly nature doesn’t stop teams from double-teaming him or prevent the Bucs defensive tackle from laying out quarterbacks. It also doesn’t have any apparent effect on his reputation among the players as he was voted the 28th best player in the NFL by his peers in NFL Networks annual Top 100 poll this year:

The criticism of McCoy’s sportsmanship comes in part from the inevitable comparisons to the Bucs last stud defensive tackle, Warren Sapp. Sapp himself “almost threw up” seeing McCoy’s sportsmanlike assistance of his opponents, but he also compared McCoy and Bucs linebacker Lavonte David to this generation’s version of himself and Derrick Brooks per Bucs Nation.

McCoy is not Sapp, but the comparison is telling. Critics say McCoy doesn’t stand up to Sapp, but do they realize that they’re comparing him to a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer? Why not compare him to Ndamukong Suh, Geno Atkins or Marcell Dareus? Is it because not one of them can be considered superior to McCoy in any definitive sense?

What does separate Suh, Atkins and Dareus from McCoy is their fellow linemen. In Detroit, Suh had a long string of great partners including Nick Fairley, Cliff Avril, and Ezekiel Ansah. Atkins has Carlos Dunlap and the good version of Michael Johnson. Dareus has Mario Williams and Kyle Williams.

McCoy did have Michael Bennett, but otherwise he has been without a consistent edge rusher to win one-on-ones. Jacquies Smith may be on his way but he’s not there yet.

None of this matters to many of McCoy’s critics who believe a great player succeeds all on his own. Maybe on Madden there are plenty of players who can change a game all on their own.

In reality, those that can change the make-up of a game on an even semi-consistent basis are Hall-of-Fame material. J.J. Watt is maybe the only defensive player in the league who elevates his entire team, and even he can’t keep Houston out of the cellar of the AFC South.

Watt and Warren Sapp are once-in-a-generation players. Is McCoy? Maybe not, but why is that the standard at which he’s held? Why is he beset by demands for second-half sacks (which he already gets) and big plays (which he already makes)?

It’s the price of being a great player on a chronically bad team. Fans get tired of blaming the same weak links, so they go after the guy who is supposed to lead the team. McCoy is generally recognized as the current face of the franchise with a 29-56 record since drafting him.

The problem with blaming McCoy is ignoring the persistent void of talent around him. Bucs coaching has been harrowing since the Bucs gave Jon Gruden the boot. It’s no secret why Raheem Morris and Greg Schiano have not been considered from head coaching gigs since their respective fiascoes in Tampa.

Lovie Smith isn’t exactly drawing rave reviews for his development of the Bucs defense either. General manager Jason Licht seems to have a clue what he’s doing at least as far as the draft is concerned, but Bruce Allen left the Bucs roster a wasteland while Mark Dominik failed to reinvigorate it.

The Bucs head coaches, general managers and even the Glazers are what really led the team down the pitiable path they walk even today. McCoy should be counted among the few personnel successes of the last five years, getting better every year. Somehow that’s still not good enough.

The ire only grew this summer after the arrival of the new hope, Jameis Winston. Despite having never played an NFL snap, the assumption by many was that he would immediately take a major leadership role on the field.

McCoy entered the NFL under similar circumstances as Winston: a highly sought, quickly drafted prospect upon whom heavy expectations were lain. His advice to Winston, to “just be a rookie,” is what truly ignited this firestorm of hate.

How dare the best player on the team tell this rookie to not take on too much in his first year! He’s just jealous! All he wants to do is help the jerks in the other uniforms up and talk about superheroes on Twitter! He’s a soft football player!

Never mind McCoy also saying that Winston’s time will come to be “the guy.” Never mind that Winston has played like a rookie, throwing seven interceptions in five games, even admitting that he’s “really a nobody in this league yet,” per ESPN’s Aaron Astleford.

No one is saying Winston can’t or won’t be a leader, but perhaps expectations for the Bucs’ first round pick are a tad too high. A player who has proven nothing in the NFL cannot simply assume leadership.

Winston has to first learn to do it for himself. As a quarterback, Winston’s ascension to a leadership role or even the face of the franchise should be quicker than most.

That doesn’t mean McCoy was wrong to tell him to be a rookie. It certainly doesn’t make him any less of the stud player he’s proven to be. Is he the face of a losing franchise? Yes, but his is not the face of a loser. McCoy is the foundation upon which Jameis Winston and the rest of the team can build a winning team.

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