THAT’S A WRAP, FOLKS!
“Well, ya ride her ’til she bucks ya, or ya don’t ride at all.” And the last two seasons have been one helluva ride. Unfortunately, that ride ended with a 30-27 loss to the LA Rams on a field goal by none other than former Bucs kicker and current Rams kicker Matt Gay. This game was the ultimate rollercoaster ride of emotions for Bucs fans. We started super hyped up at kickoff. By the end of the 1st quarter, it was “frustration”. By halftime, it was “anger”. By the end of the 3rd quarter, it was “disappointment”. And the 4th quarter was a series of ups and downs and loop-di-loops that took us from hopeful to hopeless and from unbelievable to disbelief.
It was heartbreaking.
A playoff loss is something that Bucs fans haven’t seen or felt in 14 years. And to lose like that made it even worse. I think I would’ve rather lost 27-3 than to lose like that. It was a fitting end to this season, though. In a year riddled with injuries and mental mistakes, it was key injuries and mental mistakes that ended the Bucs run at back-to-back Super Bowl titles. I couldn’t come up with much “GOOD” about this one, but it was loaded with “BAD” and “UGLY“. So here’s what I came up with from the Bucs divisional-round loss to the Rams.
The Fight Back
It may have been totally frustrating for the first three-quarters of this game, but the Buccaneers kept fighting, and some things FINALLY started going their way about midway through the 3rd quarter. They scored 24 unanswered points in the final 22 minutes of this game to tie it up with 42 seconds left. Up to that last drive, the Rams’ previous 6 possessions ended with a fumble, a punt, a fumble, a missed field goal, a punt, and another fumble. It was like the stars were aligning. It was almost like destiny that the Bucs were supposed to win this game. And then it happened. The miscommunication in the secondary and the 50-yard bomb down the middle of the field to a wide-open Cooper Kupp to set up a game-winning field goal with 4 seconds left. The first 37 minutes of this game might have sucked, but the last 22 minutes or so were amazing, and I’m so happy that I was there to witness it.
“The 12th Man”
I thought RayJay was rocking for that wildcard game with the Eagles. That was NOTHING compared to it during this game. That stadium started out pretty loud, and it did quiet down when the Bucs were trailing 20-3 at halftime. But midway through the 3rd quarter, that place started coming to life again. With each score, it got a little louder. With each Rams fumble, it got crazier. And when Leonard Fournette walked into the endzone for that game-tying score, the place erupted. I’ve never, ever heard that stadium that loud. It was unbelievable. Short-lived, but unbelievable. I’m extremely proud of how Bucs fans answered the call during these two playoff games. The Tampa Bay “12th-man” was definitely back in Raymond James Stadium. Now we just need to make sure it stays there for good.
The Loss Obviously
It’s the playoffs. That means you win, or you go home. The Bucs loss to the Rams means that the 2021 season is officially over, and so is their run for a repeat. All good things must come to an end. We knew that it wouldn’t last forever, but we were hoping it would at least last a couple of more games. That was the worst loss that I’ve ever personally witnessed in that stadium. I’ve watched some heartbreakers on TV, but never in person. Hell, it’s been 14 years since any of us have witnessed a playoff loss here at home. The finality of it is what hurts the most. The uncertainty that it brings for the future of this team. This loss brought an end to the most successful two-year run and the most talented roster in this franchise’s history. They say when one door closes, another door opens. Now we just have to wait and see what’s on the other side of this next door.
The Slow Start
This team has been getting off to slow starts all season, and I’ve been all along that if they don’t get it corrected it was going to cost them in the playoffs. Well, it happened here. The Bucs were inefficient on offense and ineffective on defense. The offense ran 32 plays for 150 total yards in the first half. And the defense allowed 39 plays for 271 total yards in the first half. They let the Rams jump out to a 10-3 lead by the end of the 1st quarter and a 20-3 lead by the half. They made some adjustments during halftime, but it was too little too late, even though they did come back and tie the game up.
Atrocious. The injuries had a lot to do with it. Tristan Wirfs being out and Ryan Jensen and Josh Wells playing on one leg didn’t help things. But besides Ali Marpet, who played really well matched up with Aaron Donald, the o-line was used and abused all game. Brady was sacked just 22 times in 17 games during the regular season, the least amount in the league. In their two playoff games with the injuries, he was sacked 7 times. Even though the Rams had just 3 sacks (Donald, Miller & Floyd) in this game, they finished with a divisional round playoff-high 58.8% pass rush win rate. That was the highest by 5.5% over the Titans (53.5%). In comparison, the Bucs pass rush win rate was just 20.7% for this game.
The Pass Defense
The Buccaneers’ secondary was decimated with injuries this season. Bucs’ defensive backs missed a combined 42 games this year. They had 12 different players start games, playing in 14 different combinations of their five primary defensive backs. Despite that, they STILL caused 21 turnovers with 9 different players snagging 16 interceptions, AND they finished as ProFootballFocus.com’s 2nd ranked secondary. Unfortunately, in this game, they didn’t play like it.
Matthew Stafford was 28 of 38 for 366 yards and 2 touchdowns. Cooper Kupp was the beneficiary with 9 catches on 11 targets for 183 yards and a touchdown, including 64 yards on two plays during their final drive that set up the game-winning field goal. For whatever reason, Todd Bowles just doesn’t have an answer for Kupp. In four games versus the Bucs, he now has 38 catches for 545 yards and 4 touchdowns. Sean Murphy-Bunting was picked on the most, giving up 7 catches on 9 targets for 70 yards. Mike Edwards only played 16 snaps, but one of them resulted in a 70-yard touchdown by Kupp. So it’s no surprise that those two were PFF’s lowest-graded defenders for the Bucs in this game.
The Blitz Call
Ah, the blitz call. Bruce Arians is being diplomatic about it, insisting it was the right call; it just wasn’t executed properly. With 28 seconds left, no timeouts, and the ball on the Rams 44-yard line, Todd Bowles called an all-out blitz INSTEAD of going with the analytics that says rush four and play coverage. Never mind the time and distance, Stafford has been lights out against the blitz all season. Against four rushers or less, he completed 319 of 483 (66%) for 3,855 yards, 27 touchdowns, and 17 interceptions, getting sacked 22 times. Against five or more rushers, he had a 132.5 passer rating going 85 of 118 (74%) for 1,031 yards, 15 touchdowns, and no interceptions, getting sacked just 8 times. The Bucs blitzed him 17 times in this game, and he was 11 of 16 for 136 yards and a touchdown with no sacks versus those blitzes.
Not only was the call baffling, but the personnel grouping was as well. For some reason, Bowles kept both Lavonte David and Devin White on the field for this play, INSTEAD of using Jordan Whitehead as a third safety/dime linebacker. That’s right, folks. Arguably, their best safety was on the sideline for that play.
As confusing as this play call was, let’s not forget the play before it that helped set it up. Cooper Kupp ran a great route and juked Sean Murphy-Bunting so bad that he slipped and fell, leaving Kupp wide open for a 20-yard gain and allowing him to get out of bounds to stop the clock. It took them from their own 24-yard line out to midfield at their 44-yard line and gave them a much better opportunity for that next home run play.
The Injuries, Again
As it turns out, the injuries to the wide receiver and offensive line groups turned out to be the Bucs’ downfall in this game. Tristan Wirfs was a game-time decision and ended up not being able to play. Ryan Jensen and Josh Wells were both hobbled with bad legs. The Chris Godwin and Cyril Grayson injuries also came back to bite them as well. While Mike Evans had 8 catches for 119 yards, only two other receivers (Tyler Johnson & Scotty Miller) caught balls. Those two combined for just 7 catches for 53 yards.
The Officiating, Again
The Bucs were only flagged four times for 61 yards in this game. However, it wasn’t the number of calls; it was the calls themselves that were absurd. The “taunting” call on Suh after Stafford purposely kicked him in the groin. The “unsportsmanlike conduct” call on Brady after the missed roughing the passer. It was just two calls, but they both affected the game. I’m pretty sure that Shawn Hochuli just has a hard-on for giving Tom a hard time. In any case, questionable officiating has been an ongoing issue all season, for whatever reason, and it continued in this game.
It was ugly; at least the first 37 minutes or so. The Bucs were down 27-3 at one point in the 3rd quarter. Nothing was going Tampa Bay’s way at all. Dropped passes. Bad throws. Missed assignments. Miscommunications. Missed blocks. Missed tackles. Blown coverages. A missed field goal. Even Bradley Pinion, who hadn’t missed a kickoff all season, put two of them out of bounds giving the Rams the ball on the 40-yard line. It was almost laughable how ugly most of this game was.
The Rams wanted it more than the Bucs. That’s how I sum up this game. They’re not the better team. They don’t have the more talented roster. They’re not better coached. They were just better prepared and wanted it more. They were hungrier. They wanted what the Bucs got last year. They wanted it for the full 60 minutes of this game. The Bucs didn’t. It’s that simple.
THE LOOK BACK
It’s amazing how a couple of years of winning can make us forget how bad we’ve had it for so long. It spoils us. We are fans of one of the losingest franchises in all of sports, and here we are “disappointed” that our team just lost a divisional playoff game, on a last-second field goal, to a really good football team that’s won seven of their last eight games. We just had a 14-5 season and won the NFC South for the first time in 14 years, DESPITE a ton of injuries on both sides of the ball and dealing with the AB drama and COVID and the fact that we were defending Super Bowl champs and had a target on our back every week. I know it didn’t feel like it last night because of the way that game ended, but this was an amazing season, and we should all be thankful that we were a part of it.
THE LOOK AHEAD
The Buccaneers are going into this off-season with a few interesting situations going on. First, there are the coordinator positions. Bruce Arians has already said that he’s coming back no matter what happens this off-season. However, both Todd Bowles and Byron Leftwich have interviewed for multiple head coaching positions recently, so it’s still unclear if either or both of them will be back next season.
Second, there’s the quarterback position. Will Brady be back? I think he will. He has one more year left on his contract, so I expect him to honor it. Besides, I can’t see a fierce competitor like him ending his illustrious career on a shitty game like that one. If he does call it quits, who plays quarterback? Is it Gabbert? Does Trask take over? Does Aaron Rodgers leave Green Bay and come to Tampa? It will be an interesting scenario.
Third, the Bucs have 24 unrestricted free agents in 2022 and about $22.5 million in cap space as of right now. Obviously, they can create more and probably will in some really beautiful mind kind of way knowing Mike Greenberg. However, unlike last year, they will not be able to keep everyone around for one more title run. There are going to be some tough decisions to make. Among the list of Bucs’ free agents are; Chris Godwin, Carlton Davis, Ryan Jensen, Rob Gronkowski, Leonard Fournette, Ronald Jones, Giovanni Bernard, Jason Pierre-Paul, Ndamukong Suh, OJ Howard, Will Gholston, Jordan Whitehead, Alex Cappa, and Aaron Stinnie.
Obviously, Godwin, Davis, and Whitehead would be the main priorities. JPP and Suh may make the decision for the Bucs and retire. If they have to choose between Fournette and Jones, I think the plan would be to re-sign Lenny and let RoJo hit the market. It’ll be up to Gronk whether he’s playing or retiring. Gholston will probably stay in town. They may have to make a choice between re-signing Cappa or Jensen. If that’s the case, they would probably choose to re-sign Jensen, let Cappa walk in free agency, and re-sign Stinnie at a much lower price. I’ll dive more into free agency at another time, but for now, that’s the situation.
Don’t hang your head, Buc Nation. Over the last two seasons, our team has gone 29-9, set a franchise record for wins in a season, won the NFC South Division, and won the Super Bowl in their own stadium. That’s a lot to be proud of. We have a lot to look forward to in the future. No matter what happens. No matter who stays. No matter who goes. No matter who strips down and jogs off the field in the middle of a game during a childish tantrum. This is and always will be a BUCS LIFE. Now it’s on to next season!