The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were feeling awfully good on a plane flight home from Charlotte on the evening of November 18. They had just pulled off one of the most stunning comeback victories in franchise history, taking down the Carolina Panthers in overtime, and their fifth win in a six-week span had put them solidly in the thick of the NFC playoff race. The offense was performing at a level never before seen in Buccaneer annals and the defense had its own host of rising young stars.
Five losses have followed, surprisingly, and the playoffs will have to wait at least one more year. As the 2012 season draws to a close for the Buccaneers, the recent losses have made it harder to focus on what were some very real and promising signs in mid-November. Still, that fact – how his team may be viewed from the outside right now as compared to what could have been had the Bucs stayed on that hot streak – is not what nags first-year Head Coach Greg Schiano at the beginning of the season's final week.
Rather, it's the Bucs' series of near-misses this season, and their cumulative effect, that weighs on Schiano's mind…and gives him focus when working on how to get his team to take the next step into lasting playoff contention.
"I care about what the fans feel and think because it is important," said Schiano. "I know that is how we exist, is our fans. But what is eating me right now is that we are close…but close isn't what we are here for. We have got to get where we start getting the five or six plays that determine the game on each side of the ball. Right now we are coming up 2-4 [on those plays]. Three-three, you have a chance to win, but 2-4 you are not going to win and especially if you do it on both sides of the ball. That's kind of where we have been the last five weeks."
Schiano concedes that the Bucs were not a few plays away from victory in Week 15 at New Orleans, where the team was blanked, 41-0. In every other 2012 loss, however, including Sunday's loss to St. Louis, Schiano knew his team had a chance to get the win, and the talent to take advantage of that chance.
"That's what eats me because these guys can do it," he said. "There have been a lot of things that have happened over the course of this year – some of the guys aren't here that we started with, all that stuff – but that doesn't matter. We had opportunities to do it and we didn't coach well enough and we didn't play well enough to be on the positive side. That's what eats me."
The Bucs won't be in the playoffs this year, and they will finish under .500 for a second year in a row, albeit with an improved record. Those developments that sparked such hope in October and November will be building blocks for the offseason, and the team will also be welcoming back some key injured performers. There's likely to be quite a bit of optimism surrounding the Buccaneers heading into 2013, and at some point the team's current run of defeats might sting even more, in a "what-could-have-been" manner. Right now, however, with a game remaining next weekend, Schiano still sees a team that is extremely close to winning each week, and he doesn't want to just miss again in Week 17.
"Maybe, after the year I'll look back on it and say, 'Man, we really had great momentum and it sputtered out,'" he said. "But when you are in the moment, in the fight, you have to focus on it. We have to get it corrected and then the retrospect of looking back, that will be a week or two from now.