The predictability of Tampa Bay’s 42-28 loss at Carolina
Rick Stroud, Tampa Bay Times, published 5 November 2018

They can't break the mold, the worst one to afflict the Bucs since MRSA. There is pathetic pattern they not only can't escape, but seem destined to follow. It doesn't matter who is playing quarterback. Jameis Winston last week. Ryan Fitzpatrick in Sunday's 42-28 loss to the Panthers. Ryan Griffin in 2020. It doesn't matter who the defensive coordinator is. Mike Smith got fired for it. Mark Duffner won't be re-hired for it.

What we know about the Bucs is that they are as predictable as sunrise and disappointed by sunset. Halfway through another frustrating season, here's what we've learned:

Coach Dirk Koetter's team falls behind early. Way behind. Three times they have given up at least 30 points in the first half this season, to the Bears, Steelers and Panthers. Three times, they've yielded 24 or more points in the first half, to the Saints, Falcons and Bengals.

The Bucs fight like hell to crawl back into the game. Fitzpatrick seems to be Captain Comeback. He did it against the Steelers, rallied the Bucs to 18 fourth quarter points last week at Cincinnati and got within a touchdown after trailing the Panthers 35-7 in the second quarter Sunday.

They get no takeaways. Sunday marked the fifth straight game without producing a defensive turnover, a club record. Ultimately, the Bucs fall short. And they find their way home to the NFC South cellar. That's where they are at the midway point of their season. It's where they have finished six of the previous seven years.

"We're in this pattern, that we go out, we get behind, we get killed in the second quarter, then we rally like hell in the third quarter and then everybody thinks we're back in it and then we fade off at the end,'' Koetter said speaking of the Bucs game — not season — pattern. "That's definitely the pattern that we're in. If I knew one thing to fix it, I would do it right now.''

And that may be the biggest problem of all. Nobody knows how to fix it. Certainly not Koetter. Since joining the Bucs in 2015 as offensive coordinator, the Bucs have started 3-5, 3-5, 2-6 and 3-5. The last three seasons, he has only himself to blame as head coach. On Sunday, the Bucs lost the coin toss and the Panthers elected to defer. Koetter said he wanted the ball first. "We tried to take the ball first, (not) to try to defer and they got it anyway,'' Koetter said. "We put our defense in two holes with the interception and the fake punt.''

(The details of the fake are not important except the gamble in the second quarter was so bad that Koetter should stay away from casinos.) Having benched Winston for throwing four interceptions last week, the Bucs turned to Fitzpatrick Sunday and he promptly turned the ball over. After going three-and-out in the first series, Fitzpatrick badly overthrew Mike Evans and Panthers safety Eric Reid intercepted and returned it 39 yards to the Tampa Bay 10. Three plays later, fullback Alex Armah bulled across for a 1-yard TD.

Evans was targeted 10 times Sunday. He caught only one pass for 18 yards. "They had a nice scheme going for Mike and there were some throws maybe I could've done a better job with placement or moving on the progression,'' Fitzpatrick said.

Speaking of schemes, Cam Newton is thriving under new offensive coordinator Norv Turner. The Panthers use speed and movement and deception to confuse the defense. It worked nearly to perfection Sunday. Double reverses, pop passes, bootlegs, read options.

All you need to know about why the Bucs struggled on defense is the day rookie Carlton Davis had. On one drive, running back Christian McCaffrey hurdled over him after taking a pass in the flat for 32 yards. On the next play, DJ Moore ran a reverse that had Davis missing a tackle on a play that went 32 more yards.

Even when Davis made a play, like the fourth-and-5 stop of Devin Funchess late in the third quarter, he got a 15-yard penalty for taunting. "We knew we were going to have growing pains when you're playing some young players,'' Koetter said. "I think Carlton Davis is going to be a really good player. But he didn't have a great overall day tackling today.''

And yet, Fitzmagic brought the Bucs back. Two first-half TD passes to tight end O.J. Howard. Two second-half TD passes to Adam Humphries. Suddenly, it was 35-28 with nearly a whole quarter to play. "They have so much of that in their DNA," Newton said, adding that "we prepared for those guys knowing they'd never give up, they'd be resilient.''

But when it mattered the most, the Bucs folded like origami. Newton took them nine plays in 75 yards, with Curtis Samuel beating Davis on a 19-yard pass play. And so, as past is prologue, we have a template for an early story on the remaining eight games: