It’s not yet November and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are already dead in the water. With their 31-13 loss to the Carolina Panthers last night, the team tumbled to 0-7 and has now lost 12 of their last 13 games dating back to last year. Along with their fellow Floridians the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Bucs are one of two teams who have yet to win a game this season. But where the Jaguars ineptitude seems farcical and comedic, the story of Tampa Bay’s season is one of high tragedy.
Start with the Josh Freeman debacle. Freeman came into the year as the team’s starting (and ostensibly, franchise) quarterback, but after getting off to a slow start both on and off the field, he was dangled as trade bait, then eventually cut. A little over two weeks later he was starting for another team. Freeman’s debut with the Minnesota Vikings was every bit the trainwreck as his recent performance with the Bucs, but that’s not the point; if Freeman is good enough to start for two different NFL teams, Tampa Bay should have been able to at least wrest a low-round draft choice from someone for him. Instead, they’re on the hook for his full remaining salary of $6.2 million even as he plays in Minnesota.
Then there’s the issue with multiple players contracting an MRSA infection. For multiple and obvious reasons, locker rooms are always going to be particularly susceptible to contagious illnesses. However, the MRSA outbreak that has afflicted at least three Tampa players -- kicker Lawrence Tynes, who is done for the season and none too happy about it, cornerback Johnathan Banks and guard Carl Nicks, who underwent a surgical procedure on his foot last week in an attempt to rid him of the lingering infection -- is disturbing for multiple reasons, chief among them the potential severity of the antibiotic resistant bug. But the fact that it’s been contracted by multiple players at the team’s facilities suggests that the Buccaneers weren’t proactive in properly handling the situation when the first cases were diagnosed.
And then there’s Tampa Bay second-year head coach Greg Schiano. To put it bluntly, it’s not a matter of if the Bucs fire their coach but when. Reports of player unrest have plagued Schiano since he started with the team and have continued into this season. Deeming his style autocratic, multiple former players have gone on the record to speak out against their old coach (something that's exceedingly rare in the insular world of pro football), with former Buccaneer Michael Bennett telling NFL.com “I still talk to guys who are there, and trust me, there's not much respect for him in that locker room." When asked about the difference between the culture of his team and his new one, the Seattle Seahawks, Bennett said, "It's lovely here. I can't even explain to people how it is here, compared to Tampa. They wouldn't believe me."
Another former member of the 2012 Buccaneers team was even more critical.
"How bad is it there? It's worse than you can imagine. It's like being in Cuba."
Even worse than losing your players is losing your fans, and that’s well underway in Tampa Bay as well. A radio station in Tampa Bay recently bought 19 billboards urging the team to “Fire Schiano.” If the move seems editorially curious coming from a local radio station, it is. In a statement announcing the billboard purchase, the radio station’s program director explain that “This billboard isn’t a message to the Buccaneers as much as it is a message to our listeners that we are right there with them.”
Where Bucs fans are is a state of total misery. Even for a fanbase that has suffered through six previous 0-7 starts, this year’s morale is particularly low. Fans have been bringing all sorts of signs to recent games, none of them of the encouraging variety, and last night a fan showed up in a Hazmat suit with Schiano stenciled on the front, a reference to the MRSA outbreak.
All of these factors add up to a tough time for the Buccaneers, whose 2002 Super Bowl season feels like a lifetime ago. But until management cleans house and finally fires Schiano, there's not much that can be done.
“You sit there and cry about it, but that's not going to help,” Schiano said after last night’s game. Tampa’s frustrated fans might not agree.