TAMPA, Fla. – This seems like a good spot for a mutiny. What could be more appropriate on a winless team that features a pirate ship in the end zone and a taskmaster head coach one star calls "Hard Core Schiano"?
The chatter this week in the NFL is not about if the scowling Greg Schiano is going to be made to walk the plank here, but how soon. He said too little about the MRSA outbreak that got Lawrence Tynes tied to an antibiotics line. He was alleged to have rigged the captain's vote that unseated quarterback Josh Freeman from that leadership role. Even the new star, Darrelle Revis, was reported to vent about the coach's hard-charging ways. The Bucs are 0-2, and Schiano has become as much of a cartoon villain as Bucco Bruce.
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Unfortunately for those who smell blood in the water, the sharks are going to have to circle just a little longer. The storyline doesn't match up with the reality. At least not yet.
"You guys are trying to throw the kitchen sink at us," Bucs offensive tackle Donald Penn blared as he stood outside his locker Wednesday. "You're trying to bring us down. It shouldn't be like that. We're good. I talked to Revis. He's good. I talked to Josh. He's good. We are unhappy we lost the last two games, that's it. I love my head coach; I love all my teammates. We're fine."
The fact that Penn stood up and blamed the media is not insignificant. The anger in the locker room may be as much outward as inward (among teammates) or upward (toward the head coach).
"People on the outside are telling me what's going on," linebacker Jonathan Casillas joked. "I think this is going to bring us closer."
Schiano's rep is no secret. He's brutal. The practices are grueling. He's the second coming of Nick Saban in Miami, and even his early track record is similar: decent first year followed by issues at QB in the second season. There wasn't a third year for the Nicktator and a lot of people don't think there will be a third year for the former Rutgers coach. There is heavy skepticism about whether any demanding college coach can succeed in the NFL, and it's easy to write off Schiano as another example of why it won't work.
But there are a few caveats. First, the Bucs brought in Schiano because the prior coach, Raheem Morris, was too lax. And the first year was a marked improvement, from four wins to seven. Dumping Schiano now sends a message that couldn't possibly be more mixed. Second, this year's two losses were both narrow. One came because of a poor penalty on Lavonte David, and the other on a missed field goal after Drew Brees struggled for most of the game. Third, and this is most important, there isn't any outward sign of exasperation.
"We were ready to get at them today," David said about Wednesday's practice. "Everybody was hyped up. I honestly don't see any difference between this week and last week."
And the Revis revolt? Well, the former Jet came to Schiano's office to make peace Tuesday. Schiano called the meeting "brief" and "not necessary." He said the chat went something like this: "I love coaching you; I love playing here. Let's go."
Revis then took all questions at his locker, saying there was "zero truth" to the charge that he's upset. "Why wouldn't I be happy here?"
It's obvious why players won't be happy here if the Bucs keep losing. Schiano knows only one way, and it's not soothing. Remember, this is the guy who ordered the assault on the New York Giants' victory formation last season. Even his news conferences are intense, with him clutching the sides of the lectern as if he's ready to throw the structure like it's a steel chair. His head tilts forward from his thick neck like he wants to charge at questioners. His solution to failure is exactly the approach that led to failure: more work.
"What we do around here is we pour everything wehave into our preparation for this one-game season," Schiano said Wednesday. "Those guys went out in105-degree temperature today and worked for this game. And coaches, you can'tlive in the past, you've got to get your butt on the field and break it downand figure out how we're going to do this."
Yeah, so this guy isn't Pete Carroll.
What's overlooked, though, is that this team has a lot of young players on it who don't bristle at being asked to work. "He's very strict and stern," said defensive tackle Akeem Spence. "He'll try to push you to get it done. And he'll make sure you get it done. I have no problem with it. I kinda like that stuff. I think the way we practice is great."
David, who delivered the illegal hit that cost the Bucs their first game, feels the same way.
"You don't want a coach who's not going to stay on you," he said. "He treats us like adults."
It's too soon for a mutiny. The two linchpins to the Bucs' offense, Carl Nicks and Davin Joseph, have not played a game together. Nicks practiced in pads for the first time since being cleared of MRSA, and that would have been the headline Wednesday if not for all the other headlines. Freeman sure doesn't look like Peyton Manning, but he probably deserves a couple of games behind those two monsters before rookie Mike Glennon is summoned.
"The team is rallying around Josh," tackle Demar Dotson said. "He's a great young quarterback. He's gonna be good in this league. Most quarterbacks are going to take heat, but it's not his fault we lost those games – not at all."
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Is Schiano irritated at Freeman? He's probably irritated at everything.
"It's frustrating, sure," Schiano said of the 0-2 record. "When you put 85 to 90 hours into a week, and you don't achieve what you set out to achieve, frustrating is the most mild word you can use."
That doesn't mean doom. Tom Coughlin built winners in Jacksonville and New York with the same approach. When it failed, people expected insurrection. When it succeeded, people loved the tight ship. And there's something to be said for how the uncommitted were chased out so the strong could thrive in New York. Right, Tiki Barber?
"Our coach is very disciplined," Tom Brady said from New England on Wednesday when asked about Schiano. "That's been good for our team."
Hard to argue with that.
So if Schiano fails in Tampa, don't expect it to be because of his domineering nature. His game coaching is a much more likely culprit. The Bucs have developed a similar habit as the Schiano-led Scarlet Knights: losing close games. The Bucs lost seven of them in 2012 by eight points or less, including three on last-minute drives by Washington, New York and Philadelphia. Add a one-point loss to Atlanta and the team was 7-9 when it could have been 10-6. This year, there have already been two close losses. The ones that got away are more likely to break morale in Tampa than the hard work. And that puts even more pressure on Freeman.
The defense will keep the Bucs in pretty much every game, but either Schiano or Freeman (or both) have to make the difference. Neither has much of a track record of doing so.
There was another example Sunday, when Schiano elected to run the ball on third-and-6 and his team in field-goal range. A first down would have ended the game. Doug Martin didn't get the needed yardage and Rian Lindell missed the field goal. Yet even if Lindell made it, Brees would get the ball back with a chance to drive the field and win it. That's how the Bucs lost to Robert Griffin III and Nick Foles at home last season.
In Week 1, the Bucs had a late third-and-3 and decided to run the ball. That didn't work either. The Jets got the ball back and kicked the winning field goal. So, in essence, the Bucs are two third-down conversions away from being 2-0.
This season, the Bucs are tied for the most penalties in the league. If they win close games, perhaps that's a sign of the physicality and aggression Schiano wants. If they lose close games, it's a sign of poor discipline and lack of focus.
The risk the Bucs took in hiring Schiano was not in his methods; discipline can win in the NFL. The risk was in hiring a coach who finds terrific talent but doesn't turn losses into wins. Lifting Rutgers to respectability (and the Big Ten) was miraculous, but the team lost at least four games in all but one of Schiano's 11 seasons in New Jersey.
"We need to play better two-minute," Schiano said Wednesday. "Whether it's smarter or better [playing] or better coaching. Whatever it is, we need to be a little better in that."
That right there is the key to the Bucs' season, Freeman's future, and Schiano's career.