AS THE DOLPHINS AND THE JAGS STRUGGLE WITH PROBLEMS OF THEIR OWN, THE BUCS ARE TRYING—HARD—TO CATCH A BREAK IN A SEASON FILLED WITH LOSSES, QUARTERBACK CONTROVERSY AND HAZMAT SUITS
This is an article from the Nov. 18, 2013 issue
YOU'VE HEARD the rumors, each one worse than the last: The place is covered with a devastating infection. The franchise quarterback was chased out of town. The players are mutinying. The coach is a dead man walking. You're convinced the Buccaneers' locker room must be in total meltdown.
And then you step inside. A Monday in late October brings more bad news—two more top-line players, Pro Bowl tailback Doug Martin (torn labrum, out indefinitely) and No. 2 wide receiver Mike Williams (torn hamstring, season-ending IR), will be out this week against the Seahawks—but no one here is hanging his head. Who has time? The game is six days away, and the next man is up. On one side of the locker room, Williams's replacement, wideout Tiquan Underwood, pumps up his own understudy, Chris Owusu. "We need you, baby!" he says.
Today is a half day at One Buc Place, a scheduling gift that came courtesy of a prime-time game against the Panthers four days earlier. Curiously, though, no one is filing toward the exits. Surveying this hive of activity, as it crackles with urgency and optimism, you'd never guess that this bunch hadn't won a game since last December. "Obviously other people are gonna think [the worst] because we're losing, and they're on the outside looking in," says second-year linebacker Lavonte David. "But nobody in here is panicking. Everybody's confidence is still up. We know we're a great football team. It's just not showing."
From the outside looking in, the Bucs look like a leper colony. Reasoned analysis, a sense of empathy, the benefit of the doubt—all kept their distance during the Bucs' 0--8 start. There is only scorn and contempt, but those sentiments are of a piece with the overall pro football malaise in the state of Florida, where sinkholes swallow up promising seasons with regularity. Consider: The 1--8 Jaguars just checked their best receiver into rehab, and the 4--4 Dolphins have had their first competitive season in five years hijacked by a hazing scandal. Here, football fans sing a common fight song, and it's a dirge.
But even in this sun-soaked land of dysfunction, the Bucs stand out. More troubling than what ails them is the sotto voce way in which they answer calls for a remedy, or even a prognosis. Owner Malcolm Glazer and the sons that serve as his lieutenants are discreet. General manager Mark Dominik mostly keeps to himself.
And Greg Schiano, in his second year on the job, is soft-spoken for an NFL coach, and when he does speak up he's generally shouted down by fed-up fans. He doesn't just have a credibility problem; he's been called everything from a bully to a snitch. His prescription for the Bucs generally comes down to the team's execution (which one of his forebears, John McKay famously said he was "in favor of" when it came to his 0--14 Bucs of 1976). Says Schiano, who, bless him, still thinks he can save the patient, "At the end of the day, we've got good guys—good men. That's how you get through tough times like these. And we will get through it. I am 100% convinced of that. In the end it comes down to people and relationships. If those are strong, we can withstand all the nonsense."
Fine. Nonsense is one thing. But what about flesh-eating bacteria?
METHICILLIN-resistant Staphylococcus aureus is not the kind of term a person who hopes to remain connected to the civilized world plugs into a Google search. The resulting images of the lesions, welts and gaping flesh wounds that the staph infection can leave on the body if untreated will make you want to invest your nest egg in a hyperbaric chamber, climb inside and never come out.
And that's before you discover this fun fact: MRSA thrives not just in hospitals but anywhere people can be found, as skin is its most effective form of transport. It's especially prevalent in environments where cuts and abrasions collide with poor hygiene, places like battlefields and playgrounds—and football fields, which often approximate a hybrid of the two.
In the NFL, MRSA is a serious problem. A survey of league physicians reported 33 incidents of MRSA from 2006 to '08. MRSA-related infections ended the careers of Pro Bowl center LeCharles Bentley (in '05, after four years) and journeyman receiver Joe Jurevicius (in '07, after 10 years). Both sued their last employer, the Browns, claiming their infections originated at the team facility. (Both were settled out of court.) And then there's former Redskins defensive tackle Brandon Noble, who caught MRSA in April 2005 while having his knee drained. Eight months later, he contracted another infection, which doctors believed was MRSA, after arthroscopic surgery. His five-year career was over.
In 2010 the NFL commissioned a study to explore how MRSA moves along synthetic-turf systems, which cover almost half of the league's stadiums and an even larger percentage of practice fields. It was on just such a surface that Bucs offensive tackle Kenyatta Walker believes he contracted MRSA in 2004, during a game at the Superdome.
Walker, though, was one of the lucky ones. MRSA did not stall or end his career. Two years after Walker's MRSA contraction, the Bucs moved into a bigger, more modern facility down the street. It wasn't built because of MRSA fears, but the new digs did have the added advantage of making the Bucs feel as if they had sterilized their lives.
Then, out of nowhere this summer came an ambush during a visit to New England for a preseason game. First, free-agent kicker Lawrence Tynes went down with a MRSA infection following a procedure to remove an ingrown toenail on his right foot. Around the same time, Pro Bowl guard Carl Nicks was sidelined with an infected blister following surgery to repair his damaged left big toe. It was enough to launch the organization into full-on germophobe mode.
The Bucs hired a company to sanitize Raymond James Stadium and the team's offices, twice. They dropped five figures on a massive air purifier that is moved around the facility daily. They required players to shower after practice before moving to any other room in the facility. And to enjoy the hydrotherapy room, they must have all their cuts and abrasions sealed with watertight bandages.
When the Bucs were through overhauling their hygiene protocols, an effort that extended well into early October, they flew in Deverick Anderson, the codirector of the Duke Infection Control Outreach Network (DICON), to review their changes. He was so impressed that before their Oct. 13 game against Philadelphia, he went out of his way to assure concerned officials from the Eagles "that this is probably the best week of all to play Tampa Bay because they have the lowest risk of transmitting MRSA to any other team."
It was an endorsement that was immediately undercut by news that Nicks, who had been responding well enough to treatment to start two games, had suffered a relapse of his MRSA infection, and rookie cornerback Johnthan Banks was fighting the bug as well. "We probably found more MRSA because we're trying to be safe," says Dominik. "Anything at all was cultured. Everything. Just to be safe. Just to be smart." So the team introduced another round of hygiene protocols and flew Anderson back out for Q&A sessions with the staff and the players. Their rapid-fire questions ranged from Can I do laundry at home? to Is there MRSA on this desk?
Anderson helped put the Bucs at ease. Their opponents, meanwhile, approached games against the team as if they'd involve handling uranium. When the Panthers played at Raymond James on Oct. 24, they laid towels down on the floor of the visitors' locker room. A week earlier, upon exiting their locker room at the Georgia Dome, the Bucs had been followed by three men in white hazmat suits and blue gloves pushing trash bins—an image that eventually found its way onto Twitter, where it, appropriately, went viral.
It all fueled the perception that the Bucs were literally the league's dirtiest team. Just what the doctor ordered: one more thing to eat at the Bucs. "It's not like we're around here not taking showers," says Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. "Everybody's washing. Everybody's overly washing, and we take all the precautions."
Indeed, the Bucs' thorough handling of the situation has prompted the NFL to huddle with DICON about how to put some of their measures into leaguewide practice.
The MRSA infections in each player are unique—which is actually good news, because it means the Bucs don't have an outbreak on their hands. As a result, the players are responding differently to treatment. While Banks played through his infection and Nicks is expected back by season's end, Tynes will not return this year. Though his MRSA was discovered after an elective procedure, he believes he should be placed on injured reserve—which would allow him to accrue years toward his pension and annuity benefits—instead of the physically unable to perform list, because he says he contracted it at a team facility.
Tynes has filed a grievance. Despite the potential future legal ramifications, history will remember this as the second-most-contentious dispute between a player and the Buccaneers in 2013.
TO HEAR those inside the organization tell it, the plan was for Josh Freeman to be the Bucs' franchise quarterback for years to come. They even considered joining the Great Extension Rush of 2013, an off-season period that saw Atlanta's Matt Ryan (five years, $59 million guaranteed), Dallas' Tony Romo (seven years, $55 million), Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers (seven years, $63 million) and Baltimore's Joe Flacco (six years, $52 million) strike it rich. But Tampa Bay opted for the wait-and-see approach instead. For his many accomplishments (like throwing for a Bucs-record 4,065 yards and 27 touchdowns in 2012), the 25-year-old Freeman still had his erratic moments (26 sacks, 54.8% completion rate). What's more, in four previous NFL seasons he hadn't carried a team to the playoffs.
Best-case scenario for 2013: Freeman improves and leads the Bucs to their first postseason berth in six years, and the team has to meet his price. Worst-case scenario: The team makes an early long-term bet, Freeman tanks (either through performance or injury) and Dominik lands in the same place Jets GM Mike Tannenbaum did after signing Mark Sanchez to a premature extension—out of a job. Best to play it safe.
Freeman, who had recently hired a new agent, wasn't feeling that. Another sore spot was the selection in April of North Carolina State product Mike Glennon, who had been considered a franchise QB prospect before slipping into the third round after concerns about his mobility and his subpar performance in the Senior Bowl. The organization couldn't afford to pass him up, not after trading its first-round pick in 2013 and a conditional pick in '14 for All-Pro cornerback Darrelle Revis. "Glennon was clearly our highest-rated player," Dominik says. "Literally right behind Banks in the second round is where we had him. I always believe in the Ron Wolf theory that every year you should try to draft a quarterback, because then you have [tradable] commodities."
From there, the fragile bond between Freeman and Schiano slowly eroded. In public the second-year coach backed the QB he inherited, but he was also frank about his faults—namely, Freeman's lack of fire and so-so work habits. Schiano was challenging his passer, but it was read as second-guessing. "There were a lot of mistruths thrown around," Schiano says. "The thing that's hard and hurts is Josh and I spent hours together right here this off-season just talking about real personal stuff—not football X's and O's, but just me trying to help as a man and as a mentor."
All that seemingly went out the window in September when Schiano announced that Freeman, a captain in three of his four seasons, had been voted out by his teammates. Schiano didn't see it as a big deal, telling reporters, "I know one thing. Josh is going to lead." But the story snowballed amid reports of a players-only meeting during which the legitimacy of the vote was questioned. All the while, Freeman, who created more controversy by missing the team photo, played less like a man who was trying to get paid than one trying to get fired. Through the first three weeks of the season, no quarterback had a worse passer rating. The Bucs, 0--3, were sinking with him.
So Schiano decided to bench Freeman. One imagines that if the same had happened to Ryan or Romo, they'd be clawing to redeem their job on the practice field and encouraging their teammates from the sideline. Why, then, would Freeman go the nuclear route and ask for a trade on ESPN? "I don't have a ton of good things to say about that whole situation," says second-string QB Dan Orlovsky. "The organization and coach have taken some hits in regards to that situation. There's a couple people that know the truth, and I'm one of 'em. I think that as a team, we're happy to have Mike. I'll leave it at that."
The Bucs tried to trade Freeman, but a series of leaks—none more damaging than the QB's enrollment into stage one of the NFL's drug program after taking Ritalin (a banned substance) instead of Adderall, a drug he was prescribed after being diagnosed with ADHD—torpedoed his value on the market. So on Oct. 3 they released him and ate the $6.2 million remaining on his contact. Four days later the Vikings claimed him and added another $3 million to his wages.
Alarmed that Freeman's personal information had been exposed, the NFL Players Association launched an investigation and isolated Schiano as the leak, claiming he discussed Freeman's drug-treatment status with other players. "I am not the leak," says Schiano, who was also hurt by further suggestions that he gamed the captain vote and spies on his players. "Another complete lie. But what do you do? I'm not going to try to convince people. They're going to think what they think. The one thing that I've done as a coach for 26 years is get involved in my players' lives. Josh was no different. I was deeply involved, and it didn't work out."
THE PERSONAL touch served Schiano well at Rutgers, which was better known as a women's basketball school before he arrived on campus in winter 2000. To change that reputation, Schiano recruited men of character who would take hard coaching and fight for his approval. Schiano Men.
"It might not look like it, but Coach Schiano is a players' coach," says Bucs backup tailback Brian Leonard, who also played under him at Rutgers from 2003 through '06. "It's not his way or the highway all the time. He has an open-door policy, a leadership counsel. He has guys talking to him all the time, things we can adjust here in practice, maybe a little less hitting here. We communicate. He listens."
Schiano took the custody of his college players seriously, promising their parents he would take care of their kids. That commitment was evident following the 2010 paralysis of Scarlet Knights junior defensive tackle Eric LeGrand, when Schiano would make sure he was in LeGrand's hospital room when he woke up. One of his first acts as Bucs coach was to offer LeGrand—who is now pursuing a career in broadcasting and is a spokesman for Subway—an honorary NFL contract.
Schiano slogged through four bleak seasons before leading the Scarlet Knights to a 7--5 mark in 2005 and the school's first bowl appearance in 27 years. In the NFL, though, a coach doesn't get four years to carefully lay a foundation. He flings concrete while everyone watches. He has to win now. Schiano understood that when he left Jersey for Florida in January 2012. His new players were undisciplined on the field and among the league leaders in stirring up trouble off it. His mandate from the Glazer family was clear: Change the culture.
So Schiano did, with gusto. To improve his players' nutrition, he required them to eat two meals a day at the team facility and insisted they walk around with something to drink. He kept meeting rooms cool to keep them awake. He implemented a more stringent system of fines. For a while, during a four-game winning streak in the middle of the 2012 season, a new mentality seemed to be taking root. But as the Bucs' losing streak steadily grew—they've dropped 13 of 14 from November 2012 through the first nine weeks of the '13 season—Schiano's meticulousness began looking more and more like micromanagement.
Before Tampa Bay's prime-time game against the Panthers, an NFL.com report drawing on the accounts of former players painted the coach as a power-tripping control freak. One player, speaking anonymously, said the environment at One Buc Place was "like being in Cuba." Michael Bennett, a former Bucs defensive end now with the Seahawks, accused Schiano of having "small [man's] syndrome"—a comment that caught former linemate McCoy off guard. "Me and Mike talk almost every day," McCoy says. "I talk to a lot of guys who used to be here who are not here anymore. When it comes to talking about the team, it's irrelevant because they're not here. We don't hear it. It doesn't affect us."
But it affected fans, whose calls for Schiano's head grew louder. A nonsports radio station, channeling the rage of callers while also capitalizing on the national spotlight of the Thursday-night game, put up 19 FIRE SCHIANO billboards across town.
That's easier said than done. Schiano is the rare rookie coach given a five-year deal out of college, one that pays him north of $3 million per. The Bucs would have to eat the entire balance of his contract unless Schiano were to get another job, but who'd want to hire a 7--17 coach? For a franchise that has already had to write off a franchise quarterback, just stopped making payments to Jon Gruden and recently came into some cap room after years of free spending, that would be a debilitating financial hit.
Besides, it's not as if the team is that bad. Throw out a 23--3 blowout by the Patriots, and the Bucs' average margin of defeat was 6.6 points. Most of the defeats came down to one play—a late unsportsmanlike conduct penalty in a loss to the Jets, a field goal by the Saints, an interception against the Cardinals. Facing certain obliteration on the road against the Seahawks, the Bucs jumped out to a 21--0 lead, prompting Seattle coach Pete Carroll to ask, "Doesn't look like an 0--7 team to me, does it?" as he walked to the locker room at halftime.
"We were all really encouraged," says Glennon, who led TD drives of 90 and 84 yards. "We talked about finishing them and not letting them come back in the game." Didn't happen. Russell Wilson & Co. rallied for a 27--24 win.
These guys are trying. And as the chances slip away, the urgency to press intensifies. "You'll be so locked in on something, and then you may forget something else," linebacker David says. "And then that one thing you forget, the quarterback ends up making a long run or a pass. It's just the little, small things like that that get you."
The hope was that Revis would make up the difference, but he hasn't been himself after tearing the ACL in his left knee in September 2012. Defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan has come under fire for mixing him into zone coverages instead of leaving him on Revis Island, but on Oct. 29, Sheridan swore it wasn't because "we're protecting him or easing him back. [His injury] might be an issue for him, but it's not for us."
Three days later Revis essentially copped to as much. "Earlier in the year, I didn't have the explosion to play press," he said. "I'm getting that back now."
Still, at least he's on the field. No group is more frustrated by the way the Bucs are playing than the ones who can't even play at all. Players such as Doug Martin, whose left shoulder is howling for surgery. He told himself he couldn't go under the knife, not after Mike Williams played two weeks longer than he should've on that bad hammy. Not when Nicks played on a MRSA-infected foot.
But last Friday the Bucs shut down Martin, placing him on IR. With the way this season is going, like something straight out of the Book of Job, surely someone will make a story out of this. "America is built on entertainment," McCoy says. "If you don't find a way to entertain people, they will not tune into your program or read your magazine. What's entertainment? Hmm. Let's find out what the Bucs are doing!"
Spoiler alert: They're doing everything they can not to lose.
But what about the NFL's winning teams? For a preview of the crucial Week 11 AFC West tilt between the Chiefs and the Broncos (combined record: 17--1) read Andy Benoit's Deep Dive column, this week on TheMMQB.com