Bucs have to decide who they want to be
It’s time for Scott Reynolds’ post-game 2-Point Conversion column, which features two big statements, two probing questions, and two bold predictions. Six days after a thrilling comeback win over the Saints took them to 6-6, the Bucs were dominated on the road by the 49ers, Losing 35-7 to fall back below .500 with another tough competition ahead in week 15.
STATEMENT 1: Bucs need to decide who they want to be
Bucs head coach Todd Bowles is absolutely right. After Sunday’s 35-7 ass-kicking by the San Francisco, the Bucs must decide whether or not they want to be a playoff team.
“We have to decide which team we want to be,” said Bowles. “We can’t be one set of Bucs and another set of Bucs. It must mean something. We have a one game lead with four games to go. Either we want it or we don’t want it. You don’t care more than the rest. As a coach you don’t go on the field. But we were coached out, so we are not free from this at all. We were also played out. So as a team, as a group, we have to brace ourselves and decide what our fate is in the coming weeks.
Of course, that only happens if this team can go its own way.
On the 49ers’ first snap, Bucs safety Keanu Neal comes in for a bone-crushing sack, but aims too high and hits Brock Purdy in the helmet. Instead of losing yardage and facing second and long, San Francisco gets a free 15 yards and scored a touchdown a few plays later to go up 7-0.
Tampa Bay had a chance to tie the game 7–7 in the first quarter, but Tom Brady’s 68-yard touchdown pass to Mike Evans was nullified due to Donovan Smith’s tenacious penalty on Jordan Willis on a three-man rush. Two devastating penalties that robbed the Bucs of any early momentum on either side of the ball.
“It’s devastating because we’re playing the 49ers and the Bucs — and we can’t beat two teams,” Bowles said. “We beat ourselves and we praise them – they beat us too. They had a good plan, but we also beat ourselves up and make it even harder.
“We were bad in all phases. We coached badly. We got coached. Thanks to Kyle [Shanahan] and his boys. They did a great job. We got our butts kicked in the attack. We kicked our butts in defense.”
It’s almost embarrassing to write at this point in the season, but the 6-7 Bucs are still 1st place of the terrible NFC South. But if the Bengals win in Tampa Bay this Sunday, the Falcons beat the Saints this week and the Panthers beat the Steelers, there will be a 6-8 tie in the division. Tampa Bay and Carolina would tie with 3-1 records in the division, but the Panthers would own the head-to-head tie-breaker for now.
The Bucs will host the Panthers, who won 21-3 at Carolina earlier this season, in the home final on January 1. Not only is that a must-win for the Bucs, but so is the 2022 regular season finale in Atlanta next week.
This is gut-check time for the players. We saw too many mistakes, too many half-hearted attempts from the Bucs against a much better team in San Francisco. We all know this Tampa Bay team isn’t going anywhere when they play like this if it does get the automatic home game that comes with winning the division. But the Bucs were at least able to salvage this lousy season somewhat by at least repeating as NFC South champions.
“They beat us up,” said Brady. “That is the reality of this sport. Every time you enter the field you have the option to get your ass kicked or kicked. Clearly we were on the wrong side today.”
Yes, the Bucs got outsmarted in San Francisco. Bowles admitted that.
But the players need to get up and play the last four games like them actually want the division title that no team really seems to want.
“Deciding who we want to be,” Bowles said. “We can’t be an up-and-down team. We still have four weeks to figure out who we want to be this season and reach our goal.”
STATEMENT #2: Brady may return to Tampa Bay in 2023 – default
Tom Brady just blew off his audition for the 49ers next year. 45-year-old Brady has just been outplayed by Mr. Irrelevant, Brock Purdy, a seventh-round pick in this year’s draft on Sunday. The 49ers rookie completed 16 of 21 passes for 185 yards with two touchdowns, no interceptions and a rushing touchdown in his first NFL start.
If the 49ers have given up former first-round pick Trey Lance and want to leave Jimmy Garoppolo next year, Brady would be a free option. But after Sunday’s performance, where Brady completed 34 of 55 passes for 253 yards with one accidental touchdown and two interceptions, did he prove a more viable option to pull off Kyle Shanahan’s offense next year? Trying to do too much on Sunday, Brady looked terrible with some serious misfires, including a potential first-half touchdown from Mike Evans on fourth and the goal.
“I made a bad pitch to Mike,” Brady said. “At the end of the day, that was a terrible pitch. I have to make it.
Yes, Brady still plays at a very high level, but the 49ers rejected his overtures in 2020 when Garoppolo led them to the Super Bowl in 2019. Brady eventually signed with the Bucs in free agency and led the team to a Super Bowl LV championship. With just the narrative premise that Brady is getting too old to be effective and a mediocre season with just 17 touchdowns and five interceptions, there may not be a strong free agent market for a 46-year-old quarterback.
And if Brady wants to keep playing, does he want to go elsewhere at this stage of his career? Having spent three seasons in Tampa Bay, he has a strong relationship with both owner Joel Glazer and general manager Jason Licht, and Brady likes the philosophy of head coach Todd Bowles. If Brady wants to play another year, I’m starting to think that maybe that will happen sooner in Tampa Bay than elsewhere.
2 RESEARCH QUESTIONS
QUESTION 1: Will Leftwich be sacked at the end of the season?
I don’t know how Byron Leftwich survives this season. Pewter Report was the first to report that Leftwich’s rose blossomed early in the season, as the predictability and lack of creativity on offense came to the fore during the team’s 2-3 start. That was noted in a Bucs Monday Mailbag column after losing 20-18 in Pittsburgh, and then I called for Leftwich’s dismissal after losing 21–3 to Carolina in an earlier 2-point conversion column.
The Bucs offense scored just seven points on Sunday, which was the lowest point total since the Panthers’ loss. The Bucs’ scoring average is now down to net 17.2 points per game, which ranks 28th in the NFL. That’s almost two touchdowns less than last year. There’s also so much going on behind the scenes – not much good – to think Leftwich will return in 2023. He won’t be sacked during the season, but it would take an immediate, mighty attack and a deep run. in the playoffs to change Leftwich’s fate.
“I think we could never get a fast start all year and it’s going to be a pass-a-thon,” said Bucs quarterback Tom Brady. “It’s hard to play like that.”
QUESTION 2: Have the Bucs found their return specialist?
Absolute. The Bucs did the right thing by firing Jaelon Darden and replacing him as a return specialist with undiscovered rookie free agent Deven Thompkins, who was cut from the practice squad on Saturday. In one game, Thompkins showed more courage, determination and ability than Darden, the team’s fourth-round pick in 2021, in his nearly two seasons in Tampa Bay.
Fearing getting hit, Darden looked for the nearest sideline to run to when answering kicks and kicks. In one game, Thompkins ripped off the longest kickoff return in Tampa Bay this year — a 54-year-old to start the third quarter. Thompkins averaged a healthy 24.5 yards per punt return and 10.5 yards per punt return, although he did throw a punt return out of bounds after hitting the sideline.
“He gave us a spark,” said Bucs head coach Todd Bowles. “He has to hold the ball, but he gave us a spark. But he’s fast and we know he can do some things with the ball. He showed that today.”
Behind the scenes, Darden failed to improve as a receiver, while in practice Thompkins was a playmaker on offense and in the second leg. But what worries the organization this year is how slow it has been to implement the necessary changes. This roster change should have happened weeks ago – just as the Bucs should have replaced struggling rookie Luke Goedeke at left guard with Nick Leverett much sooner than they did.
2 BOLD PREDICTIONS
PREDICTIONS 1: Bucs endure another 3 game losing streak but win the division
If you think you’re now upset by Tampa Bay’s 35-7 loss in San Francisco, wait for the Bucs to be beaten by a better Bengals team this week, followed by a Christmas night loss in Arizona to the Cardinals. That’s right, the Bucs could very well be 6-9 heading into the final two games of the season. Tampa Bay would need some help from NFC South foes Atlanta and Carolina losing in the coming weeks, coupled with wins over both the Panthers and Falcons for the Bucs to win the division.
But I see it happening. Even after another three-game losing streak, which began in San Francisco, Tampa Bay was able to rally and still win the NFC South the week after the new year with an 8-9 record. I wouldn’t necessarily rule out a win against the Cardinals, but the Bucs just aren’t playing well and probably won’t be thrilled to spend Christmas Eve in an Arizona hotel room.
PREDICTION 2: Bucs consider starting Wirfs at LT
This is just a conjecture, but at some point — probably next year — the Bucs need to think about switching All-Pro Tristan Wirfs from right tackle to left tackle. Wirfs has the athleticism and talent to do it, and he even played a few games at Iowa left tackle. Donovan Smith, who starts on the left, is having a terrible season while dealing with some serious personal issues. He’ll be back next year at age 30 in a year of contract, but can the Bucs trust him and his up-and-down career?
The safer bet would be to move Wirfs to left tackle possibly next year and have him serve as blindside protector for the Tampa Bay quarterback in 2023 and beyond. It’s easier to find right tackles in the draft and in free agency than premier, franchise-style left tackles. And Wirfs is an elite player with the skills to play on both sides of the line. He should be Smith’s successor at left tackle.