If you're mad at the Bucs, look in the right direction
Can we be realistic for a minute? You cannot expect a team with $78 million in dead money against the salary cap to be dancing off the field every Sunday. The last five teams to lead the NFL in dead money have gone 3-14 (Chicago, 2022), 3-13-1 (Detroit, 2021), 5-11 (Carolina, 2020), 5-11 (Miami, 2019) and 6-10 (Buffalo, 2018).

So, no, you cannot be mad at the Bucs about that. Also, Tampa Bay began the season with 13 rookies on the 53-man roster. Nearly one-third of the defensive players who appeared in Sunday's 27-14 loss to the 49ers were in college a year ago. So, no, you can't complain about that, either.

On the other hand. Devin White had three tackles against San Francisco. (He's Tampa Bay's highest-paid defensive player.)

Carlton Davis and Jamel Dean have combined for zero interceptions and seven passes defensed the entire season. (They are the third- and fifth-highest-paid defensive players on the roster.)

Shaquil Barrett has five sacks in his last 16 games. Barrett had 19.5 sacks in his first 16 games in Tampa Bay. (He's the second-highest-paid player on defense.)

Joe Tryon-Shoyinka played 34 snaps against the 49ers and did not show up anywhere on the stat sheet. No tackles, no pressures, no passes defensed. (He's No. 6 on the defense's salary list.)

You wanna be mad? Point your ire in that direction. On a team with built-in disadvantages on the roster, the Bucs absolutely need their best players to show up in every way imaginable. They need to be steady and occasionally spectacular. We're not seeing that. They need to be outspoken bosses and leaders in accountability. We're not seeing that, either.

Frankly, we're not seeing anything that suggests players are worried about their role in the lineup despite several veterans getting outplayed by their rookie backups. "The defense has to be productive, not just Devin. Everyone has to produce more," coach Todd Bowles said Monday, when asked about White's three tackles. "Everybody has to make more plays."

The problem is the entire season was built around the idea that Tampa Bay's defense was sturdy enough to be a division contender as long as the offense didn't screw up too badly. Instead, the defense has gradually grown less and less dependable, despite outstanding seasons from Lavonte David and Antoine Winfield Jr.

At the rate they are going, this will be one of the weakest pass defenses in Tampa Bay history. And for a team with the worst winning percentage (.404) in the modern NFL, that's saying something. The Bucs are allowing 273.5 passing yards per game, which is second only to the 2012 Bucs. They're allowing quarterbacks to post a 95.2 passer rating, which is their worst since before Bowles arrived as defensive coordinator.

"Sometimes, it's the rush not getting there, sometimes it's the secondary. It's a combination," Bowles said. "It's a defensive thing, it's not a secondary thing. At certain times, they get beat. All you see on TV is the defensive back getting beat, but you don't see the whole play."

No doubt there are extenuating circumstances. Barrett is 31 and coming off an Achilles tendon injury. It's likely he is just not the same player physically he was in 2019. And the secondary has lost Sean Murphy-Bunting, Mike Edwards and Jordan Whitehead to free agency in the past two seasons, so Dean and Davis do not have the same supporting cast. If you want to continue down this road, you can come up with different explanations for every shortcoming.

But, at some point, there needs to be accountability. And this is where I have an issue with the head coach. I do not subscribe to the theory that Bowles has lost his touch as a defensive coach, or that the 4-6 record should be carried entirely on his shoulders. But I do think he is responsible for this slow deterioration of standards.

Bowles does not need to be as harsh as Bruce Arians was with public criticism. He does not need to pound his fist, or scowl at sideline reporters. But this monotone "We'll get better next week," mantra makes him look like a substitute teacher getting abused by his students.

You keep waiting for evidence of urgency from players. Of anger. Of pride. Of disgust. Of something other than a shoulder shrug and a vague suggestion that they'll be better next week.

John Romano, The Tampa Bay Times, published 20 November 2023