Bucs close out 2018 by collapsing against Falcons

by Gary Shelton on December 31, 2018 · 6 comments

in general

The Bucs fired Dirk Koetter shortly after the game./TIM WIRT

Monday, 4 a.m.

It may not have ended the way you wanted. It may not have ended with a fourth-quarter comeback. It may not have ended with a last-second grasp of victory.

Dirk walks off the field for the last time./TIM WIRT

It did end, however, the way it should have ended.

In disappointment, one more time. Anything else would leave a false memory of what this season was. Anything else would have been fool's gold.

The Tampa Bay Bucs closed our their 2018 season -- such as it was --  Sunday with a 34-32 loss that fit in perfectly with the 15 games that came beforehand. Once again, they fell from ahead. Once again, they could reach out and touch victory, but they walked from the field -- and the season -- in failure. Once again, they wasted little time in firing their coach, Dirk Koetter, who was canned shortly after the game. Why it took the Glazers hours to fire him remains a mystery.

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Winston slips while setting up in the first half./TIM WIRT

Yeah, those are the Bucs, all right. You could name that team in three clues: Turnovers, penalties and lost opportunities. It was the 10th five-win season in team history -- and in 12 seasons, they have won fewer.

This season was distinctive because of the way it started: with a 2-0 record over two quality opponents (New Orleans and Philadelphia). Along the way, the Bucs won over

Evans caught six passes for 106 yards./TIM WIRT

Cleveland on a 59-yard field goal in overtime, over Carolina when Cam Newton had a four-interception day and over San Francisco in Nick Mullens' third-career start. After that, nothing. The Bucs won two of their last 10 games.

“I just told the players, ‘close, but no cigar’ is just where we are right now," Koetter said after the game (but before the firing). "There’s a fine line between winning and losing in the NFL, and it starts with effort and competing hard. Those guys are doing that for sure. But, to play the first half like we did and then in the third quarter we just kind of ran out of gas there. We gave ourselves a chance, got back into it. Got back the lead, but couldn’t hold it. We’re not far away, the Bucs are not far away. But, at the same time, we’ve got to get over the hump here at some point.”

In their latest chapter of anguish, the Bucs lost when Atlanta ate up the final 5:10 on a 56-yard drive for the winning field, kicked once again by former Tampa Bay kicker Matt Bryant, who nailed a 37-yarder with four seconds remaining.

Adarius Taylor takes down Brian Hill of the Falcons./TIM WIRT

That was a final reminder of the defense that has plagued the Bucs' for most of the year. For all the praise that Mark Duffner got after replacing Mike Smith as defensive coordinator, the Bucs were rarely able to come up with a crucial stop.

"This game was a microcosm of our season," Koetter said.

This time, quarterback Jameis Winston was sharp, hitting 22 of 35 passes for 345 yards and four touchdowns. He had a rating of 121.7, and he missed his sixth fourth-quarter comeback win only because the defense failed after Winston brought the team back to a 32-31 lead late.

And now, naturally, the attention turns to Dirk Koetter's successor. Koetter was now 19-29 over three years and has finished 5-11 in consecutive seasons.

It didn't take long. Hours, this time. The Bucs fired Greg Schiano and Raheem Morris the day after the season ended. It took them three days to fire Lovie Smith. It took 18 to fire Jon Gruden. Tony Dungy was fired two days after losing his playoff game to the Eagles.

Did Koetter deserve his fate? In his four years (one as offensive coordinator), the Bucs had three top 10 finishes on offense. But they won just 19 games in his three seasons as head coach.

“There’s no ‘deserve’" Koetter said. "There’s no such thing as ‘deserve’ in the NFL.

Godwin celebrates a TD on his 114-yard day./TIM WIRT

Numbers are nice, but this is a winning league. I’ve been fired before and I’ve been hired before and I know this: if you look yourself in the mirror at the end of the day and know you did everything you could, then I’ve got no problem holding my head up.”

Listen, the Glazer family has been spectacular to work for. The Glazer family has given us what we need and this organization is strong, starting with ownership. Whatever is going to happen is going to happen. That’s just the way this business works. I appreciate — if this is the last one for me – I appreciate the opportunity they gave me. It’s awesome to be a head football coach in the NFL. Coaching in the NFL period, is awesome. It’s the best of the best.”

The players seemed to have supported Koetter's return.

"I've got so much respect for Coach," said defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. "Not just as a coach, but as a man. The way he has treated us, the way he has gone about his business. Respect level, he's up there at the top for me. It's always been an honor to play for him. We don't know what's going to happen, so just show up to work and see."

Said Winston: "All I can say is I have a ton of respect for Coach Koetter, what he has done for me and this team since I've been here. I have a lot of respect for him. That's not my position to answer anything regarding Coach Koetter."

This was one of the ugliest losses. Tampa Bay had a 17-0 lead at one point and seemed

Javien Elliott tackles Jones, who had 138 yards./TIM WIRT

to be on its way. At least with the defeat, the team will pick fifth (and maybe fourth, if Oakland upsets Kansas City) in the upcoming draft. Of course, it is conjecture whether the team can still miss on their draft pick

In other words, the final game didn't allow the Bucs into believing they were better than they were. Finishing fourth-from-the-bottom (maybe fifth) isn't a sign that things are going well. Think about this: On Sunday, the Bucs were at home, got a great game from Winston, ran the ball well, didn't have a lot of turnovers, didn't have a lot of penalties and had a 17-0 lead. And still, they lost. They seized the basement for the seventh time in eight seasons.

It was one of the ugliest seasons, too, starting with Winston's suspension, a secondary that rarely made a play and an offensive line that didn't look nearly as good as coaches insisted. The team was 4-7 in one-score games.

"No one likes losing," Winston said. "Everybody loves winning. People love winners.

Humphries caught five passes for Tampa Bay./TIM WIRT

We just have to find a way. It's as simple as that. Whether it's three interceptions by Andrew Adams or it's four touchdowns by me or Peyton Barber scoring three touchdowns. We've got to find a way."

For much of Sunday, it seemed that they had. Winston hit Mike Evans with a 19-yard score and Chris Godwin with a 30-yarder, and Carlos Santos kicked a field goal to make it 17-0. But the Falcons scored late in the second quarter and again in the third to make it 17-14. After Tampa Bay made it 20-14, Atlanta scored on three straight possessions to go up 31-20.

Winston rallied his team, however, and his 19-yard touchdown to Godwin gave the Bucs the lead. But a failure on two two-point conversions would haunt the Bucs.

Now that the season is finished, and Koetter along with it, the search for a new head coach will commence. It will be headed by general manager Jason Licht, who survived despite his errors in the draft and free agency.

Bucs fan Rob Palmer shares his feelings./TIM WIRT

It has been 11 seasons since the Bucs made the playoffs and 16 since their last post-season victory. In their last 11 years, the Bucs have had five head coaches, which will grow by one.

So what are the chances the Bucs aren't in the same position in two years, maybe three? They have the same owners. They have a general manager who was on the firing block himself. They have the same structure.

“Buc fans want to win, and guess what?"  Koetter said. "That’s not unique to the other 31 cities. Buc fans want to win. The stuff that Buc fans [complain] about, I get it. I mean, I get it. They want to win. Sometimes, they think they want to win more than we do, and that’s not true. The guys in the trenches, they really want to win. But, we’ve got a lot of fantastic Buc fans. I appreciate them and Tampa is a sports town. When the Bucs get over that hump, Ray Jay will be rockin’ again.”

Rocking the joint? Or stoning the coach? What lies ahead?

You decide.

Barber stretches for yards against Atlanta./TIM WIRT








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