Tuesday, 4 a.m.
Winning changes everything.
It forgives a team's shortcuts. It consoles an underachieving receiver. It forgives a running back who can't get going. It pats a quarterback on the back.
That's what winning does: It gives everyone a get-out-of -jail-free card. It fumigates the air. It brightens colors. It increases milage. It makes music sound better, food taste better, books make more sense.
Consider the way you would feel this morning, for instance, if the Bucs' defense hadn't held up in the fourth quarter against the Saints. You would roll your eyes at Jameis Winston and his 184 yards. You would wonder what was wrong with Mike Evans, who caught only four passes for 42 yards. You would question Doug Martin, who rushed for only 66 yards. You would chide coach Dirk Koetter, whose team has failed to crack 20 points in three of the last four games.
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If not for 5-0, you might notice that the Bucs offense is in a bit of a funk. Detroit is the only other team in NFL that has won as many as five straight.
If the Bucs were 2-3 over the last five games, maybe even 3-2, the voices of the fans would be shrill. Where is the progress? Where is the creativity? But wrapped in 5-0, it's ... inconvenient. Sure, most fans wish the offense was playing better. On the other hand, have you seen 5-0 up close? Have you smelled it? Isn't it pretty?
The truth is this: During most of this winning streak, the true difference hasn't been in the offense (it's had its moments). The difference has been in the defense, and if that defense still sputtered, you'd be howling about the offense. That's what winning does; it makes us all much, much more calm.
Consider the stats. While the Bucs were winning five straight, they're total offense in the NFL fell from 14th to 15th. The rushing attack slipped from 17th to 15th. But the defense climbed from 28th to 21st. Against the pass, the Bucs were 27th when the streak started. They're 16th now.
Somewhere along the line, the defense has turned mean, and so you shrug and point to the scoreboard. That's what winning does. Winning means never having to say you're sorry, right?
In the last two weeks, however, Mike Evans has only seven catches for 80 yards, hardly Evans numbers.
It’s a concern, but there’s only so much we can do about it,” Koetter said. “If a defense is going to commit itself to take a guy out, they’re probably going to be able to do it. There’s only so many things you can do to a wide receiver. If it’s a running back, you can turn around and hand it to him and Mike’s not a guy that we throw a lot of screens to, we don’t run reverses with him, he’s not that type of player. But teams are definitely tilting their coverage, they’re getting up and jamming him, they’re rolling the safety that way. There’s still routes that can be successful and if you really look at that game, we had Mike some other times and for one reason or another — like that one in the first quarter on the bench route over in front of their bench, he was wide open on the bench and Jameis got his arm hit right as he threw. On one of our field goal drives in the first half, the safety came up and jumped [tight end] Cam (Brate) and Mike was running a post route in behind. Jameis wasn’t expecting that based on that coverage and he let that ball get away from him a little and if he hits that ball in stride, that’s another big play. There’s another play where we had Mike open and Jameis had to run out of the pocket. So, it just hasn’t come together exactly right and I’ve got to do a better job of getting these guys in position to have a chance to be successful, that’s something I’ve got to do better at.”
Then there is Martin, who doesn't have a 100-yard game all season. He had four last year, including a 235-yard effort against the Eagles.
“He’s been running hard,” Koetter said. “Those two runs on the goal-line — when I see that stat about two-point-something rushing average or whatever it is, I say, ‘Man, that two-yard run he made in San Diego, I sure like that one,’ and that was a one-yard run I think yesterday and he broke about 10 tackles to get one yard, but it was our only touchdown of the game. Doug’s running hard. We’ve got to give him more. We’ve got to give him more lanes. He was running into some rough looks, some unblocked guys and there’s nothing wrong with Doug Martin. People are complaining about Doug Martin, there’s nothing wrong with Doug Martin, we’ve got to play better around him.”
While picking nits, what about Jameis Winston? It's been four weeks since he had a 300-yard game.
Again, it's about winning. Shoot, we don't tune in to watch statistics, and we aren't happy when a quarterback or receiver pile up a lot of yardage in squandered efforts. It doesn't matter how many fantasy football leagues you're in, that never changes. Draft Kings is nice, but it isn't the same thing.
The offense has felt the effects particularly in the red zone.
“It’s never one thing,” Koetter said. “On the very last time down there, third-and-seven on the seven, we couldn’t have had a better thing set up. It’s the same exact thing we played at Philly last year to (wide receiver) Russell Shepard, it was wide open and we just missed it. That puts the game away, that makes it a nine-point game if we make the extra point. That’s just one example, there’s something different on every one of them. Sometimes it might be the play call, it might be execution, it might be a penalty, a combination of all those things.
"Trust me, we’re working hard on it over on that side of the building as we speak and I guess the thing that — it’s very concerning, but at the same time, I know how these guys can play on offense and I know when we get there, at least these last two games, they really didn’t need to be this close if we’re playing better on offense. But, we didn’t and we still won. So, we can’t forget, the object of the game is to win and now we’re wanting to win prefect. Some of us are.”
You know the only thing that matters about being close? It's a preview. If you win close this week, well, you might lose close next week. There is always room to worry.
Still, this team hasn't had enough of streaks like this one. (The last time was the 2002 Super Bowl season.) Deep down, who cares about yardage or completion percentage or rushing average.
We care about wins. Everything else is a salad.
Lately, there is a lot to care about.