This Bucs season has a familiar swirl to it
Gary Shelton, The St.Petersburg Times, published 24 December 2012

If you judge by the collapse, they are not much better at all. If you judge by another playoff-free January, they aren't going anywhere fast.

This is what it felt like last December, remember? The wind was whistling past, and the bodies were hurtling toward the rocks below, and all you could think about was how messy the end was going to be. The Bucs had gone from two games above .500 to a plummet toward nothingness, and it felt helpless, hapless, hopeless.

You know, like this. Once again, the Bucs are spiraling out of control. Once again, they are among the worst teams in the NFL. Once again, it appears that another season will be under way before they win again.

And so here, in the middle of the plunge toward failure, it is easy to ask a familiar question. Uh, just how much better are the Bucs? And just how much closer are they to being good?

Judging by Sunday, they are still a miserable football team that cannot get out of its own way. The Bucs lost their fifth straight game, losing 28-13 to a pedestrian Rams team, and if it wasn't for the booing, there wouldn't have been any sound at all. For the fifth straight year, they will sit out the playoffs. After this game, you wonder if they will make it in the next five, either.

This was a game that makes you question everything. What if Greg Schiano isn't the right coach, and what if Bill Sheridan and Mike Sullivan aren't the right coordinators, and what if Josh Freeman isn't the right quarterback? You can ask that sort of question about this coach or that player from now until draft day, and still not come up with an answer.

Is the coaching better than last year? Yeah. Marginally. Is the quarterback better? Yeah. Statistically. Is the franchise better? Yeah. Slightly.

And on and on. Granted, over the last 10 games of last season, the Bucs were one of the worst teams the NFL has seen in decades. They led the league in dysfunction, in disarray, in desperation. This team is better. But not by as much as you thought it would be a few weeks ago. In other words, they have fallen off a smaller mountain. Does that comfort you?

Five weeks ago, there was such a positive buzz about the Bucs. They were 6-4, and you could say the word "playoffs" without having your friends point at you and laugh. Schiano looked like the coach of the year, and running back Doug Martin looked like the rookie of the year, and Freeman looked like the quarterback of the future.

Since then, every week has made such notions seem sillier. Considering the additions of Vincent Jackson, Martin, Lavonte David and Mark Barron, you could argue that this season is even more disappointing. A good free agency class and a fine draft should have meant more than two more wins, shouldn't it?

Which brings this question: Just how close are they toward turning this franchise around? As for Schiano, he didn't want to say on Sunday. Asked about his team's regression, he said that wasn't true "in three of the last five" because they were "coin-flip games" the Bucs could have won or lost.

The thing is, it isn't a coin-flipping league. It's a win-the-darn-game league. And good teams find a way in the end to win close games. Losing a tight game is better than the alternative, but in the end, it's a bottom line sport.

Bottom line, the playoffs still feel as if they are a thousand miles away from Tampa Bay. Face it: The Bucs are only sort of in the same league as the 49ers, the Packers, the Texans, the Broncos or the Patriots. They still haven't turned the corner. They still haven't changed their identity.

So many things about this franchise seem to be going backward. Take Freeman, for instance, who drew boos throughout the game because, well, he threw interceptions throughout the game. Through 13 weeks of this season, Freeman threw eight interceptions. The last two weeks, he has thrown eight more. It has been a staggering backslide, and frankly, one that makes you wonder what the alternatives might be going into next season.

Consider, for instance, first and goal from the 7 early enough in the fourth quarter for the game to still be winnable. On first down, Freeman threw too wide for Mike Williams in the corner of the end zone. On second, he threw too high for Jackson. On third, he threw too short to Williams. On fourth, he threw underneath to Doug Martin, 3 yards short of the end zone. And there you have it. Wide, high, short and impossible. Pretty much, that sums up the last month.

As for the defense, it was slightly less problematic than usual, but still, it gave up enough to make you wonder whether the problems are players or scheme, and whether the scheme is Schiano's or defensive coordinator Sullivan. That's the thing with the Bucs. There is plenty of blame to spread around. As bad teams fall from grace, there usually is.