NEW ORLEANS — Having witnessed the baffling end to the Jon Gruden era, as well as the embarrassing end of Raheem Morris’ reign, Buccaneers right guard Davin Joseph had seen the Bucs’ fan base rise up in anger against a coach before.
But this was different. This, he noted, had become personal.
Radio station-sponsored billboards calling for Greg Schiano’s firing. Fans hurling insults as he walked off the field following losses at home. Local sports-talk radio hosts mocking him, calling him a liar.
Who can say for sure why it got so vile? Maybe it was because Schiano isn’t a virtual native son of Tampa like Gruden. Or maybe it was because you’re never going to share a drink with him at the club the way you might have with Morris.
No matter the reason, the clamor became so loud around the time of the Bucs’ eighth straight loss this year that Joseph wouldn’t have been surprised at all if Schiano suddenly cracked beneath the stress of it all.
“A lot of people would have,’’ Joseph said. “But this guy, he’s one tough son of a gun. Through the whole thing, he never wavered, never changed. Not a bit. It was the same demeanor, the same message all the way through.’’
Since he came to the Bucs two years ago, that message has always been one born out of confidence. A man rife with conviction, Schiano seldom if ever speaks in terms of can or could but almost always in terms of will.
We will improve.
We will succeed.
We will win.
Bucs fans have responded, “But when?”
The Bucs, who will finish off a second straight losing season under Schiano with their game today against the playoff-contending Saints, are 11-20 under his watch, and their restless fan base has clearly lost patience.
Whether the Bucs owners have lost their patience is harder to gauge. Other than a couple of supportive comments following a victory at Detroit last month, neither co-chairmen Joel or Bryan Glazer has said anything to suggest whether Schiano will be retained.
Schiano’s crowning achievement through 31 games is the success he had a year ago in erasing the relaxed culture that had settled in at One Buc Place during Morris’ reign.
Which brings us to this question: Can Schiano survive a 4-12 or even a 5-11 finish this year?
In his zeal to correct the culture, some say, Schiano went overboard, treating veteran pros like college kids by asking them to check in for meals, hydrate properly before practices and weigh in at regular intervals.
And really, how much more disciplined have the Bucs become in the last two years? They will go into today’s game ranked third in the league in both penalties (113) and penalty yards (1,058), which is indicative of a lack of discipline.
On offense, the Bucs, ranked ninth a year ago, are 32nd in a 32-team league. A team that has built its attack around its running game has seemingly lost all ability to run the ball in recent weeks, gaining an average of 70 yards per game during the course of its past five.
The passing game has been in a free fall, as well. A year ago, the Bucs allowed just 26 sacks. This year, they have allowed 21 in their last five games alone and have not thrown for more than 275 yards in a game all season.
Add it all up, and scoring obviously has been a problem. The Bucs are averaging 18.1 points per game this year, 29th in the league.
However, at a time when many expected his players to turn on him, when reports from all corners of the league suggested the Bucs had quit on their coach, Schiano kept the Bucs together and got them back on the winning track.
And he did it with a rookie quarterback, Mike Glennon, who will not only go into today’s game as the third-highest-rated rookie quarterback through 12 starts since 2010, but also as a central figure in any decision regarding Schiano’s future.
If Glennon is indeed Schiano’s quarterback, and Schiano’s decision to bench Josh Freeman after three games suggests he is, the Glazers may want to see how Schiano fares when he’s got Glennon running the show from the start.
They also may want to see if the steady rise of the defense that has taken place under Schiano will continue. Since Schiano took over the Bucs last year, their attack-oriented defense has become the most difficult unit in the league to run against, allowing an average of 96.3 yards during the last 31 games.
Their 3.8 yards allowed per carry during that span ranks first in the league, as well, and the Bucs’ 39 interceptions the past two years are the fourth-most in the league since the start of 2012.
The Bucs are even getting after the passer more. They will go into today’s game with 34 sacks, the most since they recorded 36 during the 2005 season under Gruden.
And while the offense has struggled, some of the problems there have to be attributed to injuries.
The Bucs lost Pro Bowl left guard Carl Nicks to a series of left foot problems after Week 4; they lost Pro Bowl running back Doug Martin to a shoulder injury after Week 7; and starting receiver Mike Williams was lost to a hamstring injury after Week 8.
Injuries to three different starters at tight end and two reserves at running back will force the Bucs to take on the Saints today with a fourth-string undrafted rookie, Tim Wright, at tight end, and a waiver claim, first-year pro Bobby Rainey, at running back.
But that’s the kind of year it has been for the Bucs, whose misery began two weeks before training camp started when kicker Connor Barth was lost for the season to an Achilles tendon tear suffered while he was participating in a charity basketball game. His projected replacement, Lawrence Tynes, was then struck down by a MRSA infection.
That said, the NFL is a bottom-line business, and Schiano’s bottom line is not impressive. Sure, he’s changed the culture at One Buc Place, and the fact the Bucs are less concerned these days about losing players to off-field issues will be factored into any decision regarding his future.
But few coaches survive two straight losing seasons in this league. At the very least, they wind up in limbo, and that is precisely where Schiano appears to be.