Fortune Cookies

“Any given Sunday.” It’s a football adage that tells us that any team can win any game. Though it’s a cliché, there is some truth to it. Just ask Pete Carroll the next time he calls a goal-line slant.

The element of luck is often downplayed in the game of football, but it’s an essential facet to every outcome. With 22 men on the field, a handful of choices beget countless possible outcomes that no one can truly predict for every snap in every game.

Luck can be a cornerback slipping on the turf, leaving a wide receiver clear to run 60 yards for a score. It can also be a cornerback committing a facemask penalty on the same play as a big turnover by the defensive line or a fumble that may have been overturned had it not occurred behind a lead blocker.

If these last two instances sound familiar, it’s because that’s what happened to the Bucs on Sunday. Of course Alterraun Verner had to pull on a receiver’s facemask 20 yards from where Gerald McCoy batted the ball for Will Gholston to recover. That first Doug Martin fumble may have been overturned if not for Logan Mankins falling in front of him.

Circumstance is a fickle machine, assembling an order of events that’s never quite as anyone plans.

But make no mistake. Luck did not make the Bucs lose this game.

Poor coaching and poor play set the Bucs up for failure. The offensive line came out completely flat against a mediocre Bears run defense. Jameis Winston’s ball placement remained erratic. Luck had nothing to do with Doug Martin keeping a hold of the ball in the first place.

The defense allowed Jay Cutler to complete 74 percent of his passes. For all the blame that Lovie likes to assign to personnel for this problem, the secondary’s consistent and overall failure to cover receivers falls on him

The Bucs are allowing a league-worst 69.5 percent of opposing passes to be completed. This was a problem last year (when the Bucs were also dead last in completion percentage allowed) and it has remained a problem throughout this season.

Completion percentage doesn’t tell the whole story as the Bucs could be simply forcing opposing offenses to take short pass plays. The problem is, they’re not short enough. The Bucs are also allowing 7.4 yards per pass attempt which is about average.

What’s both strange and horrifying about this stat is how few big plays the Bucs defense allowed this season. They’re tied for second-fewest plays over 20 yards allowed at 40, and they’re tied for fewest plays over 40 yards with just 4. Quite simply, big plays do not skew the yards per attempt average.

What this means is, the Bucs make it very easy for opposing offenses to move the chains. No one needs to attempt big plays against the Bucs because first downs are just waiting to be plucked every 7.4 yards.

There are plenty of issues to point at causing this abominable stat. A lack of pass rush, injuries in the secondary, too many coaches for the secondary, etc. There really is only one person to blame: Lovie Smith.

He has no business blaming personnel for the coverage issues. He got to pick most of the players. The only defensive backs remaining from the Mark Dominik era are Johnthan Banks and Keith Tandy, and Banks even led the Bucs in interceptions last season.Good coaches adjust to the talent they have available. Lovie Smith can’t seem to even recognize that there is a problem with how his scheme is executed. He appears content to haphazardly swap the same pieces in and out and expect a different result.Maybe Smith believes that one of these days, he’ll stumble upon the right combination of cornerbacks to adequately execute his scheme. That would be pretty lucky, wouldn’t it?

The Beginning is the End is the Beginning

“Start fast.” It’s a common NFL trope about opening the game with a rapid if methodical scoring drive. Coaches want to set the tone early as its easier to sustain than it is to change the tempo once the opposing team has already established it.

The Buccaneers straight up suck in this regard.

Dating back to Raheem Morris’ slow starts with Josh Freeman, the Bucs have been terrible at the start of games for years. This year it’s taken a more disturbing manifestation where the Bucs’ poor coaching and lack of mental fortitude is epitomized in a single play.

Against both Tennessee and New Orleans, the Bucs were seemingly undone by the first play of the game. In Week 1, a personal foul on safety Major Wright rendered the Bucs timid for the remainder of the game according to Lavonte David per JoeBucsFanMarcus Mariota went on to look like Steve Young for the rest of the game, throwing 4 touchdowns on a listless Bucs defense.

Now, before you go blaming Gerald McCoy for the defense’s convalescence, the exact same thing happened to the Bucs offense in Week 14 against the Saints. A 38-yard completion by Jameis Winston to Vincent Jackson was called back after a holding penalty by Donovan Smith. After that, Winston gained only 182 yards and a touchdown against a New Orleans pass defense that was allowing 286 yards and 3 touchdowns per game.

The Bucs came out flat against the Rams last week, but there’s no single play to pinpoint where things went wrong. Instead, the team as a whole just wasn’t ready to play Thursday night (though this is somewhat endemic of Thursday games).

A football game is never truly determined by just one play. However, these are certainly cases where one play had entirely too much impact on the team’s overall performance.

There’s one person who deserves the blame for this. No, again, it’s not Gerald McCoy even if certain bloggers and so many fans would probably blame him for global warming or your cereal getting soggy. It’s not Jameis Winston either.

It’s Lovie Smith. Of course it’s Lovie Smith.

For all the hubbub made about pre-game rituals, who’s a locker room leader and why a player might be smiling at any given moment before, during or after a game, it’s the head coach who has to set the tone for his team. Lovie Smith is ultimately responsible for how ready the Bucs are to play before the game begins.

Smith routinely proves incapable of ensuring his team’s readiness, mentally or strategically. The longer he’s on the Bucs’ sideline, the less apparent it becomes that he can lead Tampa Bay back to a winning path.

With the Bucs now eliminated from the playoffs, the shine is officially worn on Lovie Smith’s head coaching tenure. If he can’t turn his team around next year, it should no longer be his team.

The Spark

For a long time, the Buccaneers have missed something. Something important, vital to any winning team.

It’s been years since the Bucs have had a spark. A winning spark. A quality beyond measurement except for the win column.

What should be clear now is that the Bucs found this spark with the help of Jameis Winston.

The Bucs teased yet another late game letdown against Atlanta on Sunday, down 19-17 with just over three minutes to play. Two second half turnovers seemed to turn the tide with Doug Martin’s fourth quarter fumble leading to the Falcons’ only touchdown on the day.

Lovie Smith’s team had been here before, appearing as a formidable NFL team in the first half before collapsing through the second. It happened with Indianapolis, Washington and the previous meeting with Atlanta.

The Bucs’ defense, considered a viable substitute for Swiss cheese earlier in the season, actually kept Tampa Bay in the game. They held Atlanta to just four field goals before the fourth quarter touchdown despite playing without their two best pass-rushers, Gerald McCoy and Jacquies Smith.

This Sunday the Bucs were undone by turnovers which had become uncharacteristic of Jameis Winston and Doug Martin. The game nearly ended when Winston was picked off by Paul Worrilow, but the Falcons linebacker was called for pass interference, negating the turnover.

Little went right for the Bucs on this final drive. Right tackle Demar Dotson, returning to the starting lineup with Gosder Cherilus out, committed a holding penalty, bringing back a big run by Martin. Two plays later, Winston was sacked, leaving the Bucs with a third-and-forever situation.

The most viable option for the offense was to pick up enough yardage to get within field goal range, but that kept the Falcons within one point of retaking the lead.

It’s times like these when teams need that spark. There was a glimmer of it against Dallas during the offense’s late game-winning drive, right up until Winston fumbled the ball in the endzone. Only a lucky break and a defensive holding call gave the Bucs the ball back, leading to a score.

This Sunday was different. The missing piece materialized in a surreal play that could very well mark a turning point for the franchise.

Winston, surrounded by rushers and facing a thick blanket of coverage, took off running. While this has become a common sight from the Bucs rookie passer, 20 yards is a lot for even the swiftest of running quarterbacks.

Ten yards short of the first down marker, a bevy of Falcons defenders converged on Winston. A field goal was once again possible but the game far from over. All Atlanta has to do is get Winston down.

But lo, Winston rips himself from the clutches of Atlanta’s sleepy defense and races another 10 yards to pick up the first down. Raymond James erupts with emotion not felt for too long a time.

The ensuing touchdown was practically inevitable as was Lavonte David’s game-sealing interception of Matt Ryan.

That’s how winning teams close a game. Let’s see if it’s a winning team that finishes the season.