Garbage Time: Buccaneers at Panthers Review

With only two games left in the regular season, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are officially coming home for good. The last road game of 2014 saw them head to Carolina in an attempt to spoil the Panthers’ playoff chances. To the surprise of no one, the Bucs lost by a small margin. Such close losses seem to be the trademark of the last two seasons, but amidst this predictably sad outcome are other threads of stories and thoughts for 2015. I know that, until the season is officially over for a team, it can be hard to already make the mental leap to 2015. The 2-12 Bucs make that a very logical step, and the matchup against Carolina left plenty of clues.

For what felt like the first time this year, poor play rather than an injury actually was enough for head coach Lovie Smith to make a change. The fact that it took until fifteen weeks into the season when the Buccaneers were officially out of playoff contention for Smith to actively change things is more than a little disconcerting. It felt largely like Lovie was convinced the team needed to stand as it had. With the current lineup left to sink or swim, players such as starting left tackle Anthony Collins have been dragging the team all the way to the bottom of the Mariana Trench when it comes to execution.

For Week 15, Collins was officially benched and Demar Dotson allowed to explore the left side of the offensive line. Dotson performed admirably even by normal standards and was well ahead of Collins’ continued poor play throughout the season. Official word from Smith was that this was “a Coach’s decision,” whatever that means. Reports on Monday indicated that Collins himself believed the change was entirely due to a nagging elbow injury and had nothing to do with his play. Collins sincerely believing there is no way he could be benched due to poor play has to be a desperately dishonest attempt to remain in denial of the possibility of being released come the end of the 2014 season.

Casper the Disappointing Center A dude named Evan Dietrich-Smith actually performed like real offensive lineman. He didn’t botch any snaps and didn’t draw any penalties, which is essentially a Pro Bowl performance when compared to his play in the previous week against Detroit. Logan Mankins also had a solid game as the left half of the offensive line seemed to produce a Christmas miracle by reviving a previously invisible Buccaneers run game. Doug Martin traveled back in time to relevancy by racking up just shy of a hundred rushing yards with an impressive average of 6.9 yards per carry. Dotson clearly made a positive impact at left tackle, but Oneil Cousins didn’t exactly pick up the slack at right tackle.

Vincent Jackson led the team for the second week in receiving yards, but it’s taken him until the season’s garbage games to make a significant impact. Regardless of V-Jax having a recent impact, he’s definitely not playing like a $10 million receiver. In 2015, Jackson’s base salary is $9.7 million. I like V-Jax, but he’s not worth that based on how he’s played this year. There are more pressing needs on this team and better uses for that kind of money. If Jackson isn’t willing to restructure and take a pay cut, he shouldn’t be a Buccaneer come next season.

Rookie Mike Evans had the worst performance of his career against Carolina. Evans did manage a touchdown, but he finished with only 13 yards despite eight targets. Evans went up against stiff competition as Panthers cornerback Josh Norman was playing with great form in the second half of the game. Evans may have had a disappointing performance this week, but that doesn’t change the impact he has made. He had a bad night, but Evans will remain the future of the Buccaneers at the wide receiver position.

The poor play of the offensive line certainly didn’t do Josh McCown any favors en route to a pair of fumbles and an interception, but McCown’s attempts at decision-making didn’t help either. The offensive may have played a bit bipolar, but the defense remained somewhat reliable. While some opportunities to intercept backup quarterback Derek Anderson were missed, the overall play was consistent and younger players that could be the future of the franchise continued to impress.

For several weeks it seemed the only man on the team who knew how to tackle was Lavonte David. Bradley McDougald led the team with 15 tackles and Danny Lansanah continued to prove himself as a reliable staple at linebacker. Orie Lemon tied David with two tackles for loss a piece, and Lansanah and Jacquies Smith both had sacks by the game’s end. While there were definite signs of the usefulness these lesser known players will have next season, it didn’t come together for a dominant epic performance in Carolina. Penalties were not as numerous as they had been recently, but they came at costly moments. As well, the defensive line struggled to provide any semblance of pressure without Gerald McCoy in the mix.

In the end, Patrick Murray proved once again that he’s the most reliable player on the Buccaneers roster. Many players made impacts, but it wasn’t enough to come together and leave with a win. The consolation in a loss this late in the season is that, in looking forward, such an outcome improves the Bucs chances at holding the #1 Overall Pick in the 2015 Draft. Unfortunately, no one man, regardless of whether or not he has won the Heisman, can save this team. Josh McCown isn’t performing like a franchise quarterback, but anyone who thinks that just having someone else behind center will fix this mess hasn’t been paying attention.