Final month will determine Bucs’ season

by Gary Shelton on December 11, 2020

in general

Bowles' faces a talented offense./TIM WIRT

Friday, 4 a.m.

For the Tampa Bay Bucs, December has always been the cruelest month.

It's the month that Jon Gruden's final Bucs' team went 0-4 down the stretch (after a 9-3 start) that led to his firing. It's the month that John McKay's first Bucs' team was outscored 177-31 to finish 0-14. It's that month that Raheem Morris' last Bucs' team was outscored 165-63 before he, too, was fired.

Let's face it. Over their history, the Bucs haven't been that good in September, either. Or October or November.

But December has been the month of nightmares. Coaches get fired. Quarterbacks lose jobs. Hope vanishes.

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Which brings us to today, and a 7-5 Bucs team that is trying to salvage something of its season.

Two games against Atlanta. One against Minnesota (Sunday) and one against Detroit.

Those games will measure the degree of disappointment you remember this team by. Either it at least makes the playoffs, or it will be the largest fail of big names in recent history.

"In this building, I think we understand what we are [and] who we are," said offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich. "What we’re trying to do is win football games, really. We’ve got to do what we’ve got to do to win football games. Whatever that entails [and] whatever we feel as though is best for us to win football games and do that, we’ll try to do. We understand that it’s December – you always want to be playing good football – in all phases, really – in December [and] getting ready if you have an opportunity to get to the [playoffs]. That’s our mindset, really. Just doing the things we think we need to do best to help us win football games.”

Minnesota, which started the season 1-6, has rallied for a 6-6 record. Offensively, the Vikings are dangerous with quarterback Kirk Cousins, back Dalvin Cook and receivers Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen.

“They’ve got great receivers, obviously, " said Bucs' defensive coordinator Todd Bowles." Between the two of them they make big plays every week. Going into our game, I’m sure they’re feeling pretty good because of the plays we gave up [against Kansas City]. Along with the running game, they tie those two things in very well and they make you play honest football.”

The Bucs not only have to play honest. They have to play better. They've dropped three of four, and their defense has shown cracks in the secondary. There hasn't been much of a pass rush along the way.

"(We have to) get back to fundamentals and communicate better," Bowles said. "I think our communication was lacking on a couple plays and we busted some coverages here and there. We have to get back to fundamentals and basics.

"As you go through the season and you get to the middle of the season, you have that lull where you kind of get away from fundamentals a little bit and you just start working on the game plan. We have to get back to what we’ve been doing best and what we know how to do, and that’s the basic fundamentals of football. Whether it’s eye discipline, backpedaling, gap recognition and technique, hat and hands – just old school football and playing the way we know how to play.”

The Bucs hope that quarterback Tom Brady's success in the late season will spread to his teammates.

"You always get everybody’s best in December," Leftwich said. "No matter what their record is, you always get everybody’s best because teams are either getting ready for the [playoffs, or] they’re trying to get into the [playoffs]. So, you’re going to get everybody’s best week in and week out, and he understands that. We’ve got to do a good job of clearing all the outside noise in December. When December comes here, it’s locked in, focus, us doing what we need to do to win football games [and] us doing what we need to do to execute play in and play out. He’s been the best at it and that helps. That helps, especially with so many guys not having an opportunity to play in the playoffs yet. I think the experience he brings to our team helps us because it gives us a sense of comfort. We’ve got a guy that has been there [and] done that in these type of situations. He can help the guys that haven’t been there [and] done that move along in this process.”

Leftwich said that ball control will be big for the Bucs on Sunday.

"It’s not that you’re trying to keep the other team’s offense off the field – you’re trying to do what’s best for the teams to win football games," Leftwich said. "Sometimes it’s going to be running the football on first downs heavily. Sometimes it’s not going to be that. Sometimes it’s going to be throwing it on first down. I’ve got to make sure to finish this season out that I do a better job of putting us in positions to really just play the way we need to play to win football games. Control the ball, play well and be good in situational football. In order to control the ball, you have to play well in situational football – third downs, red zones, not have negative plays. As long as we continue to do that, I feel fine about where we’ll be at in our execution. We just have to go out and get it done.”

Brady said he is enjoying the milder winter in Florida.

"The last couple days have felt like early October mornings where I’ve been in the Northeast for a long time," Brady said. "I’ve been loving wearing a hoodie for a couple days. It’s amazing just to be at this point in the season and to still be outside practicing today. It turned into a beautiful day and I know we have a warm one coming up on Sunday. I always came down to Florida late in the year – we always played the Dolphins [because] they were in our [division].

"It was pretty tough to adjust to. Just being in it really prepares you for the heat because it definitely takes a toll if you’re not used to it. But I’ve loved just being outside every day. I was a native Californian for a long time in my life and I went away from it for about 25 years. You won’t catch me dead living in the northeast anymore. I’m loving the warm weather and it’s been a great feeling.”

Brady knows that a good finish is important.

"The reality is you’re battling to improve every week," Brady said. "Let’s say you have a great record to this point – it’s not a big deal. I’ve been on a lot of teams where we were 10-0 and we finished 12-4. You lose four of your last six and don’t play well going into the playoffs – you finished 12-4, which is pretty good, but at the end of the day you’re not playing very well going into an important time because you didn’t improve or maybe you lost ground from where you were earlier in the year. I’ve been 5-5. The first time I was on a championship team we were 5-5 through 10 games and then played really well down the stretch.

"What you’ve got to do is you’ve got to have competitive stamina. You’ve got to have the ability to compete every day through whatever the situation might be. No one feels good about losing football games. That’s not why we’re here – we’re here to win games. But you’ve got to learn from the losses so that you can put yourself in a better position as you move forward. We’ve had a lot of learning that has gone on this year. I know we all wish we were 12-0 at this point, [but] it’s not the reality. We haven’t deserved it. We haven’t played to that level. But what we have had is an opportunity to learn about each other, what things we’re productive at [and] what we haven’t been productive at. Hopefully now, having a week off and understanding how we need to approach these things going forward it, we can really play our best football. That’s what December is all about so we can continue to improve. Wherever that takes us, it takes us. It will be up to us to earn it. No one is going to give you anything in the NFL – it’s too competitive, it’s too tough. Every week is a challenge. Every week presents different challenges for you as a team, whether it’s on offense, defense, special teams [or] all of it combined. The better teams you play, the less margin of error you have. We’re still working to improve as I would say most teams are. If any team thinks they’ve got it figured out, then we’ll see where they are at the end. At the end of the year, there is only going to be one team that’s happy with the way the season ends. There is a lot of time between now and that time of the year and I think for us, it’s just focusing on having a good day of practice and putting ourselves in a good position to be able to compete this particular week.”

The Bucs will play the Vikings at 1 p.m. at Raymond James Stadium.

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