Entering the season, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were looking to build off a 7-9 season under coach Greg Schiano and seemed primed for a playoff run.
Franchise quarterback Josh Freeman was coming off a 27-touchdown season in 2012, running back Doug Martin had run for 1,454 yards as a rookie and the team had acquired the best cornerback since Deion Sanders in a trade.
Seven games in, Freeman is with another franchise, Martin could be out for the season with a shoulder injury, shutdown cornerback Darrelle Revis is playing more zone coverage than man and fans are calling for Schiano’s job.
Oh, and the Bucs have yet to win a game.
That’s just the half of it for Tampa Bay, which plays host to Carolina (3-3) on Thursday night on national television. A number of off-the-field issues have also come to light, including:
• Three players diagnosed with MRSA, a serious staph infection;
• Players’ only meetings;
• Questions surrounding who leaked a player’s medical information;
• And defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan inviting fans to join him in film sessions if they think they can do a better job.
When Schiano was asked how he and his staff have handled players reportedly disgruntled with the coaching staff and the other off-the-field issues, he said the premise of the question was false.
“That’s not accurate,” Schiano said. “We haven’t had to do anything to handle it. Our locker room is great. It’s not an issue. We did make some changes on our roster. But as far as the locker room and the camaraderie, it’s great.
“It’s always challenging when you work hard and then you don’t achieve the goals that you initially set out for yourself. We’ve got a real strong locker room, a good group of coaches and we’re just plugging away.
“The one thing I know is when you have good people that work hard and work smart, eventually the worm will turn.”
But former Tampa Bay quarterback Shaun King, who started every game for the Bucs’ 10-6 playoff team in 2000 and is now an analyst for NBC Sports, said the situation in Tampa is worse than it seems.
“It is bad. It’s really bad,” King said. “That fan base is probably one of the most accommodating fan bases in the league, and they’re fed up. When Tampa’s fan base gets fed up with something, that means it’s bad.”
Freeman’s breakup with the Buccaneers was as nasty a separation as the NFL has seen all year.
The 17th overall draft pick from 2009, Freeman was in the final year of his rookie contract. In his first four seasons, Freeman passed for 80 touchdowns and 66 interceptions. In 2012’s 7-9 season, he passed for 27 touchdowns and 17 interceptions, and surpassed 4,000 passing yards for the first time in his career. He also beat the Panthers twice.
But 2013, however, got off to a rocky start.
First, Tampa Bay drafted former N.C. State quarterback Mike Glennon in the third round. Then Freeman was not re-elected as a captain, missed team meetings.
The Bucs limped to 0-3, with Freeman passing for two touchdowns and three interceptions. He was inactive for the Bucs fourth game, and Glennon started.
The Bucs released him on Oct. 3, and someone inside or outside the Bucs’ building leaked that Freeman was in stage one of the NFL’s substance abuse program.
Freeman said in a statement he voluntarily entered the program after using Ritalin rather than Adderall for his diagnosed ADHD, and the NFL Players Association has asked the NFL to launch a joint investigation into who – be it inside or outside the Bucs organization – leaked Freeman’s confidential medical status.
“It was handled about as bad as you could possibly handle a situation like that,” said Stephen White, a Tampa Bay defensive end from 1996-2001 and an analyst for SBNation.com. “I’m not defending Freeman at all when it comes to missing stuff. I was raised in the NFL by Coach (Tony) Dungy. I can’t even wrap my mind around being late or missing stuff.
“But you have to listen to other people. (Team captain and offensive guard) Davin Joseph admitted he was late to stuff, too. And so if you’re changing the culture, if you’re supposed to be this ‘toes on the line’ guy, why are players, including a former captain and a current captain, missing or being late to stuff?
“That boggles my mind.”
The Buccaneer Way
When Schiano came to the Bucs from Rutgers University before the 2012 season, he touted the culture he would instill around the franchise, calling it the “Buccaneer Way.”
His rules, such as requiring toes on the line and not allowing players to talk during team stretching, carried over from the college ranks. Considering the team won three more games in 2012 than it did the previous season under Raheem Morris, it seemed to have worked.
“Coach Schiano really emphasizes his core values here, and he really stands for all the right things,” Glennon said. “Coming from my coach in college (former N.C. State coach Tom O’Brien), who kind of preached the same kind of qualities – prepare really hard, be good people and care about our teammates – I think what he kind of preaches to us is really good stuff.”
King, who played for six years before retiring in 2007, said the tight-ship type of coaching works for established coaches such as Tom Coughlin or Bill Parcells, but for Schiano it falls flat with the players. Coughlin and Parcells each have two Super Bowl rings as head coaches; Schiano was 20 games below .500 in Big East play during his 11-year tenure at Rutgers.
“He took a terrible Rutgers program and made them respectable but he never won anything,” King said. “When you hire a guy like that, who wants to control everything but he’s never won, that never works.
“And then you start bringing in guys who have been on teams that have been in championship games, they ask the one question college coaches never have to answer: Why? And that’s where college coaches struggle in the NFL.
“Why can’t I talk during stretch? And when you’re not winning you have to have an answer for that. And it’s not just because, ‘I said so.’
“We’re not on scholarship. We make more than you!”
Life on the island
In September, Revis was reportedly upset about Schiano’s strict ways, as well as the staff’s penchant for putting him in more zone coverage as opposed to man-to-man. Revis later refuted the report, saying he was happy to be a Buccaneer.
The Bucs traded a first-round and conditional fourth-round pick the next year to the Jets for Revis and signed him to the biggest contract for a cornerback in NFL history – six years, $96 million.
Revis’ shutdown ways had earned him the nicknamed “Revis Island,” but he’s played mostly in zone coverage this year. Against the Eagles two weeks ago, NFL Films producer Greg Cosell said Revis “truly” played in man coverage on two snaps.
“You’d think it goes without saying, if you trade for this guy and give up a first-round pick and another pick and pay him $16 million a year, you have to change your scheme to fit him,” White said. “And besides that, if you’re going to play a zone-based scheme, why would you pay a guy that much money? You don’t pay $16 million for a guy to sit out in the flat and wait for something to come to him. You pay $16 million for a guy to get up there and erase their top receiver for the rest of the game.”
Bucs defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan took exception to fans and analysts alike questioning how Revis was used. Last week he invited fans to the stadium from 5:20 a.m. until 11 p.m. four nights a week to help game plan.
“We’ve got all the free cokes you want in the building and we’ll be happy to take those suggestions on how we can better use Darrelle,” Sheridan told Tampa media. “Trust me when I tell you we painstakingly game plan how best to use all of our personnel, not just Darrelle.”
In the following game against Atlanta on Sunday, Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan was 20-for-26 passing for 273 yardsand three touchdowns.
Sheridan reportedly said fans showed up Monday, though they were not allowed inside the facilities.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera can empathize with Schiano. The two were on the Chicago Bears coaching staff together in 1997-1998, with Rivera as a defensive quality control coach and Schiano as a defensive assistant.
Questions about Rivera’s job security dating back to midway through last season aren’t dissimilar to what Schiano is experiencing this year. But Rivera, who is well-liked in the Panthers’ locker room, said neither he nor the team could dwell on the specter of a coaching controversy.
“That’s hard because now the distraction is away from football, and that’s the hard part,” Rivera said. “I know Greg and Greg’s a really good guy and he just wants to win.
“I think the one thing that I always try to stress to our guys is, let’s just try to stay focused on the task at hand. That’s the only thing we can control. That was my message.”
Both King and White said there was a “zero percent chance” Schiano will be the coach next season, but chances are slim he would be fired mid-season. The Glazer family, which owns the Bucs, isn’t known to make coaching changes mid-season, even sticking with Morris when he lost his final 10 games of the 2011 season.
While Schiano fights for his job and the Bucs fight for their first win, the Panthers are looking to move above .500 for the first time since 2008. Quarterback Cam Newton said the Panthers are not going to be lulled to sleep by the Bucs’ record, and linebacker Thomas Davis said Thursday could be a dangerous game.
“You know going into this game Tampa Bay is going to be hungry for a win,” Davis said. “They’re a good football team, it’s just not showing on their win-loss total.
“It’s a nationally televised game. Guys always want to play well when the world is watching.”
Jones: 704-358-5323; Twitter: @jjones9