All the Buccaneers had to do was punt
You punt. It is as simple as that. You punt. You do not hesitate, you do not deliberate, and you do not turn into Tricky Dick on the sideline. Most of all, you do not unleash Air Dirk Johnson.
You punt. You do not razzle, you do not dazzle, and you do not ponder the alternative methods of using fourth down. With a four-point lead, you do not get in your team's way when it comes to winning a game.
You punt. And when the opportunity arises again, you punt again. You punt. Because if you punt, you win. Any questions?
When a team punts as often as the Bucs do — admittedly, they don't do it very well — you might think they would have a handle on the relative importance of a team kicking its way out of trouble. Evidently, they have not. Because of it, they have lost again.
Twice in the fourth quarter of Sunday's 20-17 loss to the Falcons, the Bucs declined to attempt a play as basic, and as logical, as a punt. Twice, they were inside Falcons territory, and twice, they had a lead, and twice, they decided against trying to pin the Falcons near their goal line, and twice, it backfired miserably on them.
A fake punt? A long field goal?
For crying out loud, who is the Fourth Down Coordinator? And if you find him, would you have him come to the office? And bring his head? Because whoever he is, he's about to go in the discard bin with Jeff Jagodzinksi and Jim Bates.
Of course, the guy in charge of fourth downs is head coach Raheem Morris. He was the guy who called for the fake punt. He was the guy who called for a low-percentage field goal. Today, he is the man who deserves the heat for both.
It's a shame, in a way. This should have been Morris' day. The way the defense played seemed to validate Morris' decision to demote Bates from defensive coordinator last week and call the game himself. The line seemed more aggressive, and the linebackers seemed more active.
In the does-he-get-another-year debate, this would have been Morris' strongest argument to date. In all, the Bucs made 10 tackles for losses, and they allowed only 2.9 yards per rush and only 4.4 yards per pass attempt. If that bunch had been given a longer field to defend, it would have been good enough to win.
Think of it like this. By the fourth quarter, the Falcons were down to their backup quarterback and their backup running back. The further their replacements had to travel for points, the better. No, it doesn't guarantee the Bucs would have won. Yes, it would have improved their odds.
If nothing else, the first play of the fourth quarter should have demonstrated that when Johnson punted to the Falcons 1-yard line. Three plays later, the Bucs had the ball back.
On the team's next series, however, on fourth and 8 at the Falcons 39, Morris called for the fake punt. The logic is still a little befuddling. After having three downs in Falcons territory in which the Bucs didn't elect for Josh Freeman (whose quarterback rating for the day was 118.5), they chose to try to have Johnson (one career pass) throw instead.
"I was just trying to get our offense going," Morris said. "I wanted to change the game, and I did. I changed it in their favor. That's completely on me. It was a call I made, and it didn't work out for us. I'm lucky our defense was able to get out there and get them off the field, but the field position changed, and it gave them a little momentum."
The Bucs escaped that when Jason Elam missed a field goal, and soon enough, they were back in Falcons territory. This time, the offense went into safe mode again and bogged down at the Falcons 33 to set up fourth and 4 with 2:34 to play.
This time, the Bucs brought on Connor Barth to try a 51-yard field goal. That would have given the Bucs a seven-point lead that probably would have guaranteed they would not have lost in regulation.
Mind you, this wasn't as egregious an error as the fake punt because Johnson was injured on the fake punt and Barth had kicked three field goals of similar distances a few weeks ago. Still, 51-yard field goals are not high-percentage kicks, and Barth had a 46-yard punt on his previous try. And giving an opponent the ball at its 41-yard line is less preferable than pinning the team deep. "You can't play scared," Morris said.
True, but there is a difference between playing scared and playing smart. For one of the few times this season, the Bucs were not in a desperate situation, and still, they played as if they were. "You can't second-guess yourself," Morris said. "This is a grown man's sport. When you start second-guessing yourself, then you become soft. Those were the decisions I made (Sunday), and I stick by my decisions."
Today, those decisions are going to stick to him, too. So, too, is the question of whether the Falcons could have driven the ball 80 yards, maybe 90, for the victory. One punt, maybe two, and the Bucs wouldn't be kicking themselves today. Twice.
Gary Shelton, The St.Petersburg Times 30 November 2009