The Bucs' five-step approach to ruining a month of good vibes
John Romano, Tampa Bay Times, published 22 December 2019

So they lost a game. Big deal, that happens in the NFL. And they lost a winning streak, as well. That was inevitable since no team wins forever. But as the clouds turned darker and the smallish crowd began leaving early Saturday afternoon, what really hurt were the intangibles the Buccaneers may have lost.

Your trust, for one. And maybe your patience, too. All the goodwill the Bucs had slowly cultivated against a succession of clunker opponents the past month evaporated in a torrent of sloppy, dimwitted and victory-defying football in a 23-20 loss to Houston.

This was the game that was supposed to tell everyone just how far the Bucs had come in 2019. Even coach Bruce Arians had suggested during the week this could be a valuable way to measure what next season's Bucs team might accomplish. For lack of a better term, it was a statement game. And that long-awaited statement was: Oops!

Turnovers, penalties, dropped passes. Poor clock management, questionable play calls, silly special teams mistakes. No one was excluded from this mess. Not the quarterback, not the coaching staff, not the inept officiating crew. "We clearly, I think, were the better football team," said tackle Demar Dotson. "We should have won this game, but we beat ourselves. That hurts, man. When you know you should have won and you give the game away? That hurts."

He's right about that. Tampa Bay looked like the more talented team on Saturday. The Texans may be heading to the playoffs, but they had trouble moving the ball against the Bucs defense. Except for that moment on the eventual game-winning drive when the Bucs had linebacker Lavonte David in one-on-one coverage with Houston wide receiver DeAndre Carter nearly 40 yards down the field. Oops!

And the Texans may have clinched the AFC South on Saturday, but the Bucs gained more yards than most every other team on Houston's schedule. Except, you know, there were those four interceptions and one fumble given up by Tampa Bay's offense. Oops!

"When we protect the football and I protect the football, we score points," quarterback Jameis Winston said. "No one has stopped us this year when I protect the football. No one."

It's certainly magnanimous of Winston to accept responsibility for his league-leading 28 interceptions but we've heard these mea culpas before. Are we supposed to believe that this time Winston really has figured it all out?

Because this is a pretty talented team. And it's often a very entertaining team. But it's not going anywhere until it becomes a smarter football team. You cannot keep making the same mistakes over and over. You cannot keep running the ball into a pile on third-and-short. You cannot keep calling the same passing play that cornerbacks are sitting on. You cannot let a chance for a victory slip past because you're afraid to go for it on fourth-and-one. "The defense played winning football today," Arians said. "Our special teams and offense did not."

So was the past month just a mirage? Did all of those passing yards and victories have more to do with the opponents the Bucs were facing rather than the improvements the players said they were making? That's not a simple yes/no answer.

The young secondary is clearly better, and the entire defense is becoming more dependable. Winston was also making throws that only a handful of quarterbacks in the NFL can make on a consistent basis.

But none of that matters if you can't discipline yourself. And that's why it's hard to put your faith in this team. There are times when they look so good you believe they are on the cusp of something special. And just when you're ready to jump on the bandwagon, they forget to tighten the lug nuts and you go crashing down another embankment. Is it Winston's fault? A lot of times, it is. But the Bucs say he's also the reason there's hope tomorrow. The question is whether you'll ever believe that again.