Bucs are doing a better job of collecting excuses than wins
To be fair, the Bucs have excuses. Some of them are even valid. Two of their best cornerbacks are still on the sideline, and Jason Pierre-Paul is playing with a bum shoulder that is difficult to overcome when you're 32 and your extended warranty has expired.

Their Hall of Fame tight end has been AWOL for a large chunk of the season and the quarterback doesn't seem to have much faith in Rob Gronkowski's replacements. So, yeah, when it comes time to grade the 2021 season the Bucs will have a legit alibi.

On the other hand, they don't throw boat parades for having the best excuses. This 29-19 loss to Washington on Sunday will either be the low point of what turns out to be another glorious season, or it will be that moment when you first realized the Bucs do not have the same magic they did a year ago.

The choice is mostly theirs. Oh sure, some of it will come down to fate. If Gronkowski, Antonio Brown, Sean Murphy-Bunting, Carlton Davis - and now Vita Vea - get healthy soon, the Bucs could soon be strutting again. Until then, some of Tampa Bay's bigger names had better start making more of an impact. That includes Tom Brady. And Shaquil Barrett. And Mike Evans. And Lavonte David. To paraphrase an ancient NFL prophecy, much is expected of those who take up much of the salary cap.

What we witnessed on Sunday was inexcusable no matter how many injuries and rationalizations the Bucs come up with. By the second half, Washington was missing pass rushers Montez Sweat and Chase Young, yet the league's worst pass defense still held Brady to a pedestrian 220 yards.

And two weeks after a quarterback with a 13-13 career record (that would be Trevor Siemian) undressed the Tampa Bay secondary, a quarterback with a 2-6 career record (that would be Taylor Heinicke) shined a spotlight on their exposed backsides. Again, there is no excuse for that.

Good teams lose in the NFL. On occasion, they even lose to really bad teams. But you cannot lose to a backup quarterback, get a bye week to recover, then lose to a last-place team. We've got a lot of soul searching to do," coach Bruce Arians said.

A few weeks ago, the defense appeared to have turned a corner. When they forced five turnovers in a game against Chicago, it capped a month-long run when they had given up less than 15 points a game.

But since then, they've played mostly on their heels. The Saints held the ball for 33:16 and Washington held it for 39:08. The defense recorded five sacks Sunday, but that was mostly due to a plethora of blitzes. The defensive line, and Barrett in particular, had very little impact. "We're going to figure this out real quick," said David, who had a forced fumble. "And it's going to be on the veterans' shoulders to turn this thing around."

The offense doesn't get a free pass, either. The easiest barometer of success and failure the past two seasons has been the number of turnovers on offense. Including the postseason, when the Bucs turn the ball over two or more times, they are 3-6. In every other game, they are 18-2.

And while one of Brady's two interceptions on Sunday was the direct responsibility of receiver Jaelon Darden, who had a perfect pass bounce out of his arms and into the hands of a Washington defensive back, Arians had no interest in exonerating his quarterback.

The coach also seemed miffed that Brady was constantly throwing underneath coverage and not waiting for plays to develop downfield. "Had nothing to do with the receivers," Arians said of the interceptions the past two weeks. "It was (Brady)."

The Bucs took the long road to win the Super Bowl last season, and the odds are they won't be able to do that again. That means winning the NFC South, and that means not giving away any more games to inferior teams.

This isn't a time to panic, but it also cannot be dismissed as a mere product of injuries and misfortune. Tampa Bay is either going to survive this rough stretch, or its going to fade quietly into the sunset. And that final boat ride will be a lot less entertaining.

John Romano, The Tampa Times, published 15 November 2021