TAMPA — Years from now, this game will look like any other in a mostly unremarkable season.
No better, no worse than the week before or the week after. The opponent isn’t special, the roster is unchanged and the vibe is barely measurable.
But you’ll know better.
Sunday’s game against the Titans feels like a turning point in Tampa Bay’s season. Win this game, and optimism for a division title and a fourth consecutive postseason appearance extends to Thanksgiving and possibly beyond. Lose this game, and it could set in motion a series of franchise-changing decisions.
The Bucs will never say that publicly. They may not even admit it privately. But it’s hard to see how five losses in a row and a 3-6 record wouldn’t cause ownership to start thinking seriously about the team’s direction.
The status of head coach Todd Bowles will, and should, become an open question. Personally, I think Tampa Bay’s problems have more to do with the salary cap and the roster than the head coach’s decisions, but Bowles’ track record does not afford him the benefit of the doubt.
Sunday’s game will be his 90th as a head coach (not counting his interim stint in Miami), and Bowles has 35 victories. In the past quarter-century, there have only been a couple of head coaches (Doug Marrone and Dom Capers) who have gotten six or more full seasons as a head coach with a winning percentage below .400. Bowles would be in line to be the third.
So how many wins will it take to secure his job for next year? I’m not sure the number matters. I think it’s more a question of hope. Do the Bucs do enough, beginning Sunday, to allow the Glazers to advertise hope when it comes to selling season tickets in 2024?
Because here’s the thing:
Bowles is not the only person with an uncertain future walking the halls at One Buc Place.
Quarterback Baker Mayfield has resurrected his career during his two-month stint as a Bucs starter. His numbers are solid, not great, but he’s shown he can be a quality quarterback in the right set of circumstances. And he’s clearly outperformed his one-year, $4 million contract.
For the Bucs, that’s both good and bad news. Mayfield has given them a chance to win, but he’s also put himself in line for a bigger paycheck next season. How big? Ryan Tannehill turned a one-year, $2 million tryout with Tennessee into a four-year, $118 million extension after having a career season in 2019. Mayfield isn’t going to get that kind of money, but it suggests he’s got some leverage on his side.
More than half the quarterbacks in the NFL are making more than $20 million annually. Would the Bucs want to commit to that when coming off a losing season with Mike Evans, Devin White, Lavonte David and Antoine Winfield Jr. all pending free agents?
If the Bucs lose to the Titans and head into December with a record around 4-7, do they finally give Kyle Trask a chance to prove what he can do? Because if he’s not starting for a losing team with a free agent-to-be at quarterback, it’s an indictment of Tampa Bay’s lack of confidence in his future.
And, while we’re at it, what would a loss on Sunday mean for Evans? He’s already expressed disappointment that the Bucs did not sign him to an extension in the offseason. How eager will he be to re-up with a team potentially coming off two losing seasons with uncertainty surrounding the quarterback and head coach?
Evans endured six consecutive seasons without making the playoffs at the start of his career. If the Bucs are 3-6 with an ongoing rebuilding process in the future, Evans might decide he’d rather spend his final NFL seasons with a team built to immediately contend.
The Bucs began the season with 13 rookies on the roster. This was mostly due to $78 million in dead money against the salary cap, but it was also an acknowledgement that they needed fresh blood after signing a series of veterans during the Tom Brady era.
So, if the Bucs lose to the Titans, should they consider playing more of their younger players? Will players such as Matt Feiler, Ryan Neal, William Gholston and Chase Edmonds get sent to the far end of the bench? Or Mayfield, for that matter?
All these questions will likely exist at some point in Tampa Bay, but a loss to Tennessee will make them unavoidable and hasten their arrival.
The future is just hours away. We’re just not sure what it looks like yet.
John Romano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
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