TAMPA — For one week at least, the media circus chronicling the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during their season of despair pitched a new tent across Alligator Alley.
There’s no truth to the rumor Bucs coach Greg Schiano was stationed in a toll booth, waving the horde on to South Florida.
The Miami Dolphins, who face the Bucs Monday night at Raymond James Stadium, have suddenly been dealing with their own slew of off-field issues while winless Tampa Bay remained out of the national sports headlines for a change.
“At the end of the day, on Monday when everybody lines up, all the distractions go out the window,’’ Bucs left tackle Donald Penn said. “I think all that stuff that’s going on now, it’s not going to be a factor at all come game time Monday night.’’
Miami coach Joe Philbin hopes Penn is prophetic, but a bullying issue with racial overtones has dogged the Dolphins all week.
Instead of talking about a 22-20 overtime victory against Cincinnati that evened Miami’s record at 4-4, Dolphin fans are wondering how the team will react to allegations that veteran guard Richie Incognito bullied second-year tackle Jonathan Martin.
“In the locker room, this isn’t an issue,’’ Miami’s best pass rusher, defensive end Cameron Wake, said during a conference call with Tampa Bay reporters. “We talk about football, we talk about making plays, stunts, tackling, catching the ball. To me, it’s kind of silly. I’m in here trying to talk about football and everybody wants to talk about something else.’’
The Bucs can empathize with Wake’s frustration.
For the past two months, Tampa Bay players and coaches have fielded questions about the Josh Freeman saga, the outbreak of MRSA and Schiano’s future on the Bucs sideline.
“I really feel bad for them,’’ Bucs guard Davin Joseph said of the Dolphins. “It’s a tough subject they’re going through right now. Distractions have hurt us a little bit, but they’ve also helped us grow in another way, in having us become better men and better teammates to each other.’’
Miami’s ongoing issues will impact the Dolphins in one tangible way on a night the Bucs induct Hall of Fame defensive tackle Warren Sapp into their Ring of honor.
While Incognito is suspended indefinitely for conduct detrimental to the team, Martin left the Dolphins last week. He has hired attorney David Cornwell, who claims his client endured a “malicious physical attack’’ by a teammate, along with a a pattern of harassment.
Quarterback Ryan Tannehill has been sacked an NFL-high 35 times and the Dolphins will arrive in Tampa without two offensive line starters. Instead of facing Incognito, a seasoned 10-year pro, Bucs defensive tackle Gerald McCoy will line up across from Nate Garner, who has 13 NFL starts.
“We’ve had four excellent days of preparation,’’ Philbin said. “I’m confident in our guys. If you don’t believe in your players, you have no chance.’’
The Dolphins are only a half-game behind the Jets in the race for the AFC’s final playoff spot, but they’ve been unable to return the media focus back to the field since the Incognito-Martin story broke last weekend.
“Unfortunately I called my 92-year-old father yesterday,’’ Philbin said, “and he was on the computer, so I had to tell him to get off the computer. Honestly, I don’t think I’d have enough time in the day to read all the stuff that’s out there.’’
Mired in their worst start since 1985, the Bucs are determined to tune out Miami’s ongoing soap opera.
“Obviously, stuff’s been on the news with them, but they’re taking care of business, just like we are,’’ Tampa Bay wide receiver Vincent Jackson said. “We haven’t let any distractions be an excuse for us and they won’t let their distractions be an excuse, either. The focus is always on football and we’re expecting their best.’’
Philbin has done his best to hold things together while each day brings a new twist for a franchise that has posted only one winning record in the past seven years.
The Dolphins snapped a four-game losing streak in dramatic style when Wake sacked Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton for a safety in overtime. Three days later, no one was checking the schedule, trying to gauge Miami’s postseason chances.
“As long as they use it as a learning tool, the Dolphins will be fine,’’ Joseph said. “Tough times can rip you apart or bring you together.’’
The Bucs have already experienced their own crucible as a flurry of off-field issues threatened to sap their collective spirit.
“I know the Bucs have a big chip on their shoulders,’’ Dolphins defensive end Olivier Vernon said. “They’ve got nothing to lose right now.’’