Time is ticking away on a lost season
Rick Stroud, Tampa Bay Times, published 24 December 2018

As much as they would like to, the Bucs can't stop time from running out. Not on the goal line in Sunday's 27-20 loss to the Dallas Cowboys. Not in the 2018 season, either.

What we have here is a delay of blame. Only one game is left before the Glazer family which owns the Bucs sorts all this out. And as usual, after watching the Bucs dominate a game everywhere but on the scoreboard against the Cowboys, you're left to wonder: Who is the most responsible for this mess?

If ever there was a play that symbolized the Bucs' frustration this season it came midway through the fourth quarter. Needing a touchdown to make it a one-score game, the Bucs faced fourth-and-1 at the Dallas 2-yard line. AT&T Stadium was rocking. Although he was staring directly at it, somehow, quarterback Jameis Winston lost track of the play clock. "I don't know what happened with the clock, but we just have to get it called faster and get the ball out,'' Winston said.

Bucs coach Dirk Koetter saw the play clock winding down and did, well, nothing. "I did think about a timeout and I saw the clock,'' Koetter said. "We were going to throw it anyway. I just didn't know about using the timeout and sometimes being back further gives you more route options anyway. I also thought we were going to get the ball snapped.''

So the Bucs simply let the play clock run out. Delay of game, one of nine penalties for 72 yards Sunday. On fourth and 6, Winston escaped pressure, burst up the middle of the field and was tackled — you guessed it — one yard shy of the first down. A marathon drive that took 17 plays and 9:35 resulted in zero points. Pointless, like this 5-10 season.

"It's tough, we put a lot of work in that drive,'' tackle Demar Dotson said. "That whole group was tired and gasping for air. You know, to come up with nothing. That's a drive killer. Those points you need. Each individual on the offensive line, we fought and fought and fought. Man, I liked to pass out. When I went to sideline, I couldn't make it to the bench.''

There was a report before the game that the Bucs ownership has not ruled out keeping Koetter. For that matter, that they haven't ruled out keeping general manager Jason Licht and Winston, too. The thought goes that Koetter is the architect of an offense that, with 25 points in the season finale against Atlanta on Sunday, could be the highest-scoring in franchise history.

And Winston, who completed 34-of-48 passes for 336 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions, is worth keeping under the fifth-year club option of $20.1-million. And Licht, whose team may need to beat the Falcons to avoid the cellar of the NFC South for the fourth time in five years, is the right guy to patch the holes on the team.

So let's take Sunday's game against the Cowboys as the latest evidence for the Glazers to consider. Koetter's team went on the road and gave the NFC East champions all they could handle. If not for two disastrous turnovers on offense, they would've pulled the upset.

The first came with the Bucs trailing 7-3 and Winston facing third-and-5 at the Dallas 34 yard line. Winston felt pressure and scrambled but was sacked from behind by Randy Gregory, who jarred the ball free. Linebacker Jaylon Smith scooped the fumble and went 69-yards for a touchdown. "It just can't happen,'' Winston said. "It can't happen. They returned it for a touchdown. It sucks.''

The other killer came in the third quarter with the Bucs trailing 20-12. On second-and-12 from his own 23, Winston tried to hand the ball to receiver Bobo Wilson on a jet sweep. But Wilson never secured the handoff and the fumble was recovered by Gregory at the Tampa Bay 4. Two plays later, Dak Prescott passed to Michael Gallup in the end zone for a touchdown. "That was a fly sweep,'' Koetter said. "That was Bobo's play all week.''

So who do you blame? Koetter? He's got Mike Evans, Adam Humphries, Cameron Brate, Chris Godwin and Peyton Barber but he puts the ball in the hands of (gulp) Bobo Wilson? But then, it's not like Koetter coaches turnovers. "That's on me, I got to secure the ball and tuck it in,'' Wilson said.

Then there is a glaring lack of talent on the offensive line. No team is perfect in that area, but it's hard to imagine a quarterback who feels like he's playing in the middle of a freeway when the real rush hour comes more than Winston.

Is that Licht's fault, who drafted Donovan Smith, Ali Marpet, Caleb Benenoch and signed free agent center Ryan Jensen? Most of those penalties Sunday were on the offensive line. "Every time we made a big play, we were looking to make sure there were no flags,'' Evans said.

Maybe if Licht hadn't used all those picks on Roberto Aguayo. Speaking of kickers, Cairo Santos made field goals of 37- and 45 yards. But he missed from 52-yards. On the season, Bucs place-kickers are 2 of 8 on FG tries beyond 40 yards.

As always, you see the incredible fight in Winston and understand why the Glazers won't want to give up. He fights. He scratches. He claws for every yard. But as always, there are turnovers. Both fumbles were credited to him, but it's hard to really say he was responsible for them. "Their guys are relentless chasing the football,'' Koetter said. "Jameis has made a lot of plays like that this year. He knows that guys are always coming up behind him but…he's one step away from making a big play.''

So maybe the Glazers have more to consider. Maybe they still are undecided about Koetter, Winston or Licht. Next Sunday is the final game of the season against Atlanta. Then comes New Year's Eve. The clock will be winding down again.