For most NFL teams, in most in-season weeks, Tuesday is the player's day off. It's a chance to rest, regroup and – win or lose the previous weekend – turn the page to the next opponent.
It's also a perfect time for us to discuss the hottest topics surrounding the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. And for that reason, the One Buc Mailbag is back! Every Tuesday, I'll be fielding a handful of questions from the fans, but you can send them in all throughout the week. The easiest way is to hit me up on Twitter (@ScottSBucs, using #BucsMailbag), but if 140 characters aren't quite enough to get your point across, you can also send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
This week, we discuss the offense's Week Eight struggles, Noah Spence's status and 2-5 teams that have made the playoffs. Let's get to it.
1. Power Outage?
I'm frustrated and I'm sure I'm not the only one who is. How can an offense score 30 points in Arizona and 30 points in Buffalo and then go home and only score three? What happened? I was at that game. What's the real Bucs offesne-the one from the weeks before or this one? Is this going to get better? Thanks.
Braden Taylor, St. Pete (sent via email to email@example.com)
What happened is that there are a lot of good teams in the NFL and when you hurt yourself with too many ill-timed mistakes you're not going to be able to overcome those good teams. The Carolina Panthers are a good team – in particular, they have a fast and an aggressive defense that doesn't give up a lot of big plays – and they played well on Sunday. The Buccaneers did not. I do believe these 2017 Bucs have the potential to be a good team but we can't honestly say they are one until they cut down on the self-inflicted problems.
It's understandable that you're frustrated, Braden. The Bucs had lost three in a row before this past weekend but the offense had been showing serious signs of life. The Bucs went into last weekend second in the NFL in yards per game and 10th in points per game, and they seemed to be on the verge of doing even more. Instead, the offense surprisingly laid an egg, failing to score a single touchdown for the first time in any game since Jameis Winston's arrival. The Bucs simply have not played complementary football very often this season, with both the offense and the defense meeting its goals on the same day.
After the game, Winston pointedly took responsibility for the offense's struggles, saying he didn't play well enough for the team to win. That's very much in character for him and he probably would have said the same thing after a 300-yard, three-TD game if the Bucs' lost. In this case, though, it's also probably objectively true; Head Coach Dirk Koetter agreed that it wasn't Winston's best outing, while also noting how well the young passer had played just a week before in Buffalo.
Was Winston's injured shoulder a factor? Perhaps, but as Koetter noted on Monday, that's difficult to quantify, and it didn't look as if he lacked the arm strength to get the ball where it needed to go. Was the wind a factor? Probably, but I'm sure Winston believes that is an element he should be able to overcome.
The truth is, these things happen. That's not to say they should happen or that it's a good thing that it happened, but a talented offense can have a bad day. Pittsburgh is 6-2 and has scored 19 or more points in each of its wins, but in Week Five it managed just nine points in a home loss to Jacksonville (another talented defense). The next week, Pittsburgh played Kansas City, which has averaged nearly 32 points in its other seven games this year, and held the Chiefs to 13 in a six-point win. Carolina only scored three points against Chicago the week before coming to Tampa.
Again, none of this is to tell you that the Bucs' offensive output against Carolina should just be waved away. I'm just saying it's possible for Tampa Bay to have an actually good offense that will score 20-30 points most weeks and still be too mistake-prone to avoid the occasional clunker. I'm believing in that offense from the Buffalo game while simultaneously understanding that there are matters of inconsistency that must be addressed.
We can go through the Carolina game a possession at a time and see how it happened. The Buccaneers had six drives that reached into Panthers territory, all of which resulted in one field goal. Here's how they all ended:
- Second quarter, drive reaches a first down at the 50 with 14 minutes left. Winston hits Mike Evans for a big 19-yard gain to put the team into field goal range, but the play is negated by a holding penalty on running back Peyton Barber. Now it's fourth-and-20, and even though the next three plays gain 18 yards the Bucs are facing fourth down and are out of field goal range and choose to punt.
- Second quarter, drive reaches a first down at the Carolina 33 with six minutes left. Donovan Smith gets flagged for holding to push it back to the 43. Two plays later, Winston tries to escape a sack by flipping the ball to Doug Martin, but it turns into a fumble that the Panthers recover. Had Winston gotten that ball to Martin we'd probably all be oohing and aahing about what a heads-up move it was, but in reality it was probably too risky. A sack would have made it third-and-17 at the Carolina 40. Still not good, but perhaps the team can get off a field goal.
- Third quarter, drive reaches a first down at the Carolina 36 with 12 minutes to play. On third-and-seven, Winston is sacked by Kyle Love and Mario Addison and the Bucs are now out of field goal range. Perhaps this goes into the "self-inflicted" category if there was a protection breakdown, or perhaps you just give the Carolina defense credit for this one.
- Third quarter, drive reaches a first down at the Carolina 25 with six minutes to play. On third-and-eight, Winston tries to hit DeSean Jackson on a deep out but Jackson trips on his break and the pass sails incomplete. It was difficult to tell if it would have been catchable had Jackson not tripped, but either way there was a physical breakdown in execution on this play. The Bucs kick their one field goal.
- Fourth quarter, drive reaches a first down at the Carolina 31 with seven minutes to play. Another holding call on Smith makes it first-and-20 and a deep pass on second-and-14 to Evans is just overthrown. Down by two touchdowns and desperately trying to convert a long third down, Winston tries to zip a pass to TE Cam Brate, who is being covered by star linebacker Luke Kuechly. As Winston later explained, he left the pass too far inside, giving Brate no chance to get between it and Kuechly, and it is intercepted.
- Fourth quarter, drive reaches a first down at the Carolina 24 with three minutes to play. On second down, Winston is sacked for nine yards and that proves too much to overcome. The Bucs give it over on downs and never get it back.
Sacks, penalties, turnovers and a few plays that simply weren't executed well. Opportunities lost. It took a lot of such mistakes to hold the Buccaneers' offense down to three points. I think the Bucs' offense can eliminate those mistakes and look more like the one that was averaging 24 points a game through its first six, but I understand that it will be frustrating until they manage to do so.
2. Noah's Arc?
Noah Spence went on injured reserve last week. He had spent most of the first half of this season playing with a harness after suffering a shoulder dislocation, just as he did for almost all of his rookie campaign last fall. He was trying to make it through another season in the same way, but had several more dislocations and it got to the point where the harness was not preventing that from happening.
As such, he had to be shut down and surgery was scheduled to repair the joint. It is possible for players to go on injured reserve and still return in the same season, now that each team is given two such "designated to return" options each season. A player has to spend eight weeks on I.R. before he can be brought back, so Spence technically could have been activated in December if the team had one of those options left (one has already been used on quarterback Ryan Griffin). However, Koetter made it clear last week that Spence is done for the season.
The hope, of course, is that Spence, who is still just 23 (will be 24 for the start of next season) will go into 2018 fully healthy and ready to deliver on his potential. I'm sure these first two seasons have been frustrating for him, particularly with the repetitive nature of his injury. However, his teammates were extremely high on him during this past offseason, and there's no doubt the Buccaneers can use any pass-rush help they can get.
3. 2-5 to the Postseason?
Casey Phillips and I discussed on Tuesday's Insider Live but I could only give a vague "yes" at the moment, without access to the rest of the information. As I noted on the show, Greg Auman of the Tampa Bay Times had already looked up that information and written about it on Tuesday, so if you want to go directly to the source, here's the link.
I enjoy this type of research but hadn't gotten to this question yet, so there's not much point in redoing all of Auman's heavy lifting. To summarize, he reports that three of the teams that opened with 2-5 starts in the last decade made the playoffs, although it happened twice in 2015. The Texans won seven of their last nine that year to win the AFC South at 9-7. The '15 Chiefs actually started out 1-5, so they were 2-5 after the first of their 10 straight wins to finish the season.
First the Bucs need to win one in a row. That would put them at 3-5, and as Auman also notes, the Bucs were 3-5 last year before turning it around and finishing 9-7. They still didn't make the playoffs, but they were awfully close. The Bucs' best bet lies in their five remaining games against NFC South opponents. Winning all five would be a tall order, but that would almost certainly put them into division title contention. A 9-7 record didn't get the Bucs in last year, but there have been 11 teams in the past decade (2007-16) that won a division with nine or fewer wins.