For the 2013 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the only thing more dangerous than the games might be the days away from the games. In the four days since the 31-23 loss to the Atlanta Falcons that dropped his team to 0-6, head coach Greg Schiano has been pummeled by local billboards calling for his firing, and stories from NFL insiders detailing nightmare scenarios from players both current and former. NFL.com's Mike Silver quoted one player who spent 2012 with the team who said that Schiano had created an environment that was "like Cuba," and it's fairly obvious that he's lost the locker room full of his current players. Ian Rapoport of the NFL Network reported before Thursday's home game against the Carolina Panthers that Schiano could be very close to a in-season firing if the Bucs "suffer a string of embarrassing losses, show a lack of effort, and if there is an 'obvious loss of the locker room' including current players speaking out against Schiano."
It's tough to question effort unless you know what players are thinking, but there's no questioning the toxicity of the situation Schiano has created -- both literally and figuratively. As for the embarrassing losses, Tampa Bay has been within a touchdown in just two of their seven losses this season, and the Bucs' 31-13 loss to the Panthers continued that trend.
Those fans who stayed to the bitter end at Raymond James Stadium entertained themselves by booing (quite frequently, starting early in the second quarter), while two observers attended the game in hazmat suits bearing the names "Schiano" and "Sheridan" -- the second suit a clear dig at defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan, and an obvious reference to the recent outbreaks of MRSA in the locker room. It may be telling that stadium security seemed to have no problem with it.
"That doesn't affect me," Schiano said in his postgame press conference. "People are certainly entitled to their opinions. Here's the thing -- my whole career, player and a coach, you work as hard and as smart as you can. It usually puts you to bed tired, and you get up and do it again."
People are tired of that particular orbit, and it's not just Schiano under fire. Offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan has been bashed for his predictable passing concepts, and Sheridan, blasted by fans for playing high-priced cornerback Darrelle Revis in zone mismatches, recently invited those same aggrieved fans to come to One Buc Place and help him draw stuff up. After the loss to the Falcons, some fans did show up and were denied entry.
After one third-down catch in the first quarter where Smith navigated through the zone, Sheridan wisely flipped the script to have Revis follow Smith wherever he went, and Revis was able to limit Smith to four catches for 42 yards on the night.
That didn't matter, though, because Panthers quarterback Cam Newton was on his game from start to finish. After his dynamite rookie season in 2011, former offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski put too much of the passing game on Newton's shoulders, but replacement Mike Shula has gradually implemented a rushing attack that rivals the one Newton had two seasons ago in multiplicity and effectiveness. And out of that selection of run schemes, Newton has been especially good, completing 23 on 32 passes for 221 yards for two touchdowns through the air, and 55 yards and another score on the ground.
In his last three games, Newton has completed 58 of 75 passes for 667 yards, six touchdowns, and no interceptions. More than ever before, he's been composed in the pocket, dynamic on the move, and able to run a complicated offense in all its facets.
"Our guys have been very good professionals," Newton told NFL Network after the win. "Little things -- having a good week of practice, a good week of preparation, being in tune, and it's been carrying over into the games."
Newton credited Shula, backup quarterback Derek Anderson and quarterbacks coach Ken Dorsey for his recent development, and said the quarterback group "has been staying after [practice] as long I needed them to. Just to get somewhat of a look, and the throws that are going in this particular week. It's been carrying over, and it's helped a lot."
Carolina started slow-rolling the Bucs from the start, going 70 yards in 15 plays and taking 8:52 off the clock. Newton threw a one-yard touchdown pass to tight end Greg Olsen at the end of that drive, and Olsen was wide open on the left side of the end zone, despite heading there from the right side of the formation on a drag route. Tampa Bay's defense was too busy over-focusing on Newton to realize it, and that's the way things went from start to finish for the Bucs.
To be fair to the players on the losing side, there were a few fine individual efforts. Rookie quarterback Mike Glennon showed a good deep ball and excellent touch on some difficult throws, though he was vulnerable to pressure too often. He had to throw too often in the second half, and his 275 passing yards were empty calories to a point, because they came on 51 attempts. Linebacker Lavonte David continued a string of highlight plays that had him in the 2012 Defensive Rookie of the Year discussion. Receiver Vincent Jackson exhibited good awareness on a comeback route in the first quarter when Glennon escaped pressure, and Revis was effective when the schemes allowed him to be.
Lost in the Tampa Bay debacle is the simple fact the Panthers, who moved to 4-3 with the win and have a winning record for the first time since 2008 -- and the first time since Cam Newton became the QB -- proved to be a worthy contender against any team. Newton has been a relative revelation this season, but the Panthers' front seven has been just as impressive throughout this year. The receivers are inconsistent outside of Smith, but running back DeAngelo Williams and Mike Tolbert both saw opportunities to shine. It will be devalued because they won this game against a franchise that has become an embarrassment, but they've won four out of their last five games, and that's the kind of momentum that can carry them along.
"It was big," Williams told NFL Network's Alex Flanagan. "That's what you play for all year -- you play for touchdowns and wins. I think we found our identity. We try to be balanced, and we try not to be one-dimensional. We try to do what we do better than they do what they do."
That was an easy task on this night, but there seems to be more to the story for the Panthers. At the end of his postgame interview, Newton talked about how the Carolina players and coaches are "rankless and tagless" -- that anybody can confront, or seek help from, anybody else in the building. It's just as clearly working on the Carolina side as Schiano's insistence on total control is eating his team away from the inside out -- and very soon, his job with it.