Whatever it is that the only 0-16 team in NFL history drinks when their record of futility is upheld, the 2008 Detroit Lions can now pop that brand of flat beverage. In a two-day stretch, the Jacksonville Jaguars and Tampa Bay Buccaneers took themselves out the winless column and out of the history books. The Jaguars did it against the Tennessee Titans on Sunday, and the Bucs -- one week after taking the 9-1 Seattle Seahawks down to the wire -- finally registered a victory in a season full of distractions.
The Dolphins team they beat by a 22-19 score on Monday evening has assumed the role the Bucs once occupied, and it showed on Monday night. When head coach Joe Philbin's team last took the field on Oct. 31, they beat the Cincinnati Bengals in overtime for their first win in a five-game stretch. Over the subsequent extended break from Thursday Night Football to Monday Night Football, the Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin story exploded, and the embattled Dolphins would surely have loved to be the 0-8 Buccaneers.
Still, the Bucs almost blew this opportunity to win. They posted a 15-0 lead in the first half, but two touchdown passes from Ryan Tannehill to receiver Rishard Matthews and two Caleb Sturgis field goals had Miami up, 19-15, at the start of the fourth quarter. Bobby Rainey's 1-yard touchdown run with 10:19 left in the game was the decidind score, and the depleted Dolphins had nothing left in the tank.
"Not at all," Philbin said, when asked if the off-field distractions led to his team's sorry start. "We had plenty of time to prepare for this game, and I thought we had a very good week of preparation. In the NFL, you have 16 games scheduled, and you have no excuses. They played better, and they deserved to win."
Neither Martin nor Incognito were playing particularly well this season, but with Martin on an indefinite leave of absence and Incognito on an indefinite suspension, the lack of cohesion on that line certainly showed. Miami amassed a grand total of two rushing yards on 14 attempts behind replacement left tackle Bryant McKinnie and left guard Nate Garner, the lowest total in franchise history. Thus, Tannehill was forced to carry the team on his own. Though he was sacked just two times on the night, adding to his NFL-leading total of 37 for the season, there weren't enough weapons around him to counter a Tampa Bay defense that know it could pin its ears back and play pass all night.
"We moved the ball well through the air, but we didn't have any balance," Philbin said. "That caught up to us at the end of the game. Our guys were in retreat mode, pass-blocking all day. We weren't going forward and getting any type of production, so we went to the pass. The defense? They played better in the fourth quarter."
They certainly played better in the first half, though Tampa Bay may have paid a heavy price for their rushing efficiency. Running back Mike James, who had impressed in his rookie season as the replacement for injuries franchise back Doug Martin, suffered a fractured ankle on the opening drive. Brian Leonard replaced James and ran for 57 yards on 20 carries, and Rainey added some spark with 45 yards on eight carries and that deciding score.
Of course, Tampa Bay's most interesting play of the night was also the team's first touchdown. With 9:37 left in the first quarter, quarterback Mike Glennon threw a one-yard pass out of an unbalanced formation to offensive tackle Donald Penn, who rumbled around in the end zone and dunked the ball over the goalpost. That was Penn's second career touchdown reception and the only score Glennon threw for on the night. Tannehill was definitely the more impressive quarterback on the night, completing 27 of 42 passes for 249 yards, two touchdowns, and an interception to cornerback Darrelle Revis that ended any comeback hopes in the fourth quarter. But for the first time all season, it could truly be said that the Bucs were not the most dysfunctional team on the field.
"It means a lot. We put in a lot of work, and I don't think anybody thought we could do it, but we pulled it off, and I'm happy for Coach ... This is where the top-notch defenses are made," said defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. "We had a lot of opportunities early in the season to end games and we didn't. So, we said, 'We're gonna end this one."
"Coach," of course, is Greg Schiano, the Buccaneers' head man who was the NFL's most maligned individual through the month of October for his autocratic style and inability to find ways to win. What a difference a couple of weeks makes, and the realization that, no matter how bad things may be for you, they can definitely be worse elsewhere.
Philbin, who has put on a brave face through many legitimate questions about his own leadership ability and the handle he has on his locker room, remained optimistic.
"There's a lot of football left to be played. November and December will determine who moves forward. We have seven games left, and a good San Diego team coming into town. We have to take a good look at the tape and learn from the mistakes we made. Take responsibility for it, and play better against San Diego."
It's a short week for the 4-5 Dolphins, and now that team owner Stephen Ross has spoken up about his need to get to the bottom of what has been an enormous distraction, time could be a lot shorter for Philbin, general manager Jeff Ireland, and anyone else in the building who let things go unchecked.
“We are looking at everything," said Ross, who plans to meet with Martin on Wednesday, and may meet with Incognito in the future. "Right now, I have total confidence in my staff.”