Tampa Bay's turnover ratio has suffered in recent weeks
The following chart compares two teams in the National Football League in a variety of statistical categories. Study the chart carefully. One of the two teams listed below is playing .500 football. One has the best record in its conference.
|Category||Team A||Team B**|
|Pts. Allowed Rank||9||1|
|Starting QB's Rating||79.5||74.7|
|3rd Down Percentage||41.0||37.2|
|3rd Down Pct. Allowed||23.2||28.9|
|First Downs Allowed||83||101|
Just from the raw numbers – and this is a fair, representative sample not intended to be misleading – which team would you expect to be flying high and which team would be just holding even?
Team A, as you might have suspected, is the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who are 3-3 after their third straight narrow loss. Team B is their downstate rivals, the AFC East-leading Miami Dolphins. Miami's 5-1 record is tied with that of Baltimore for the best record in the AFC, and it trails only the 5-0 Vikings and Rams in the NFL as a whole.
The chart above is also not intended to denigrate the Dolphins. They have excellent numbers in a variety of categories, particularly on defense. Their total of 51 points allowed is best in the league and their turnover ratio is tied for third.
The question is, are the Dolphins' numbers appreciably better – or better, period – than the Buccaneers?
Or, more to the point, why are the Bucs floundering in October when they have achieved levels on the stat tables of which many teams would be envious? Head Coach Tony Dungy addressed his team's shortcomings on Tuesday after the Bucs' Monday night heartbreaker in Minnesota, and the answer to the question above is obvious to him.
The Bucs, who had developed into one of the league's most disciplined and fundamentally sound teams under Dungy over the last four years, are suddenly doing some big things right but getting the little things wrong. That's evident in a game in which you pass for 295 yards, sack the opposing quarterback six times, score a touchdown on special teams, punt only once…and lose, as the Bucs did on Monday.
"We have to go back and work on our fundamentals," said Dungy. "We seem to have these breakdowns especially in the fourth quarter of these last three games. Hanging onto the football, pass protection, doing things right, throwing and catching, executing our gap control on defense. Nothing fantastic, nothing earth-shattering. When you're not playing well, when you're losing. it's just those little things that creep in. We just have to go back to training camp mode, of doing things right all the time, and I think we'll be okay."
The Bucs had a four-point lead in the fourth quarter against the Vikings and had Minnesota backed into a third-and-10 at their own 27 with 10 minutes to play. The Bucs lead the league in opponent third down efficiency, but allowed that play to be converted and, three plays later, gave up the go-ahead touchdown.
However, Tampa Bay also had a third-and-one at midfield against the Vikings a few minutes later and were unable to gain another first down despite being ninth in the league in offensive third-down efficiency. Moments like that have helped the Bucs' last three opponents turn the tide in the game's final minutes.
"The (Minnesota) game was like a replay of the last three weeks," said Dungy. "We do a lot of good things and play with a lot of effort but in the final analysis, when you play against good teams you have some critical plays you have to make and we are just falling short. I think we're just going to have to keep working and find our identity, get back to what exactly we're going to be and how to win games. We've got a stretch coming up that's critical and we're going to have to play better."
What, specifically, do the Bucs need to correct. The things you would expect, to be honest.
"We can't have a lot of penalties, we can't have turnovers, we can't have missed assignments," said Dungy. "We're not going to be able to overcome them against good teams. Somehow during practice we're going to have to get that through so we can eliminate those."
Nine of the Bucs' 10 turnovers have occurred during the three-game losing streak, as well as 19 of their 31 penalties. A team that prides itself on eliminating the big play from its opponents' arsenals has allowed four touchdowns of over 20 yards in the last two contests.
"Somebody has a breakdown and good teams are able to take advantage of it," said Dungy. "You have breakdowns and you're playing someone who's not as good as you are, they might not make the most of it. Generally, when you have good teams or evenly matched teams, it's usually a matter of who self-destructs first. And the last three weeks, it's been us."
One missed play here, one turnover there. The miscues have been just enough to derail the team each week. But if there's a light at the end of the tunnel, it's that this team is used to this early-season lull. Under Dungy, the Bucs are now 4-11 in the month of October, including 0-2 this year. However, in November, Tampa Bay is 12-5 with Dungy at the helm. They have powered down the stretch in each of their last two seasons.
With two more crucial October games on the schedule, against division rivals Detroit and Minnesota, the Bucs can't afford to wait until November this season.
"It seems like every October it has been this way," said Dungy. "And then we start playing a little bit better. We can't wait until November to do that. I think the guys who have been here for three and four years know that when we play well and we don't self-destruct, we have a good opportunity to win. Hopefully, we can get that across and come out with that mindset Thursday night."
Dungy refers not to this coming Thursday, but to Tampa Bay's next game on October 19. The first Thursday Night game on the NFL's schedule this season, the Bucs' next contest is a home night game against the Detroit Lions, whom they defeated 31-10 in Detroit on September 17. In the interim, the Bucs will use the current bye week to refocus and correct the problems Dungy has identified.
"We have to give them some time off and not try to overanalyze," said the head coach. "And we have to get back to our basic fundamental football. If we do that, we have enough guys who understand where we are and how we're going to win games.
"We just have to convince the whole team and have everybody buy into it. It's easier said than done. Most of the time people think there's something more. Usually there isn't. You just have to play."