TAMPA, Fla. – The young quarterback who once provided hope for the future has been jettisoned, and a season that began with high expectations is rapidly slipping away.
The winless Tampa Bay Buccaneers are in disarray, and it'll take more than a bye week to fix the mess coach Greg Schiano has on his hands — on and off the field.
"I think we have a strong locker room," Schiano said. "Our guys are locked in on what we need to do."
If only it were that simple.
A disintegrating relationship between the organization and unhappy quarterback Josh Freeman grew more contentious by the day until the fifth-year was released Thursday — just a quarter of a season after becoming the first 4,000-yard passer in franchise history and helping the offense set numerous club records.
Rookie Mike Glennon made his first start as Freeman's replacement last week, but barely sparked the team in a 13-10 loss to Arizona. An improved defense, bolstered by the offseason acquisition of cornerback Darrelle Revis and safety Dashon Goldson, has failed to protect leads in the final two minutes in three of the team's four losses.
The Bucs (0-4) have dropped nine of 10 games overall dating to last season, raising the question whether a coaching change could be on the horizon.
Team history suggests no, however, the Bucs have never had a situation quite like this one.
The Glazer family, which owns the team, has spent generously in free agency to upgrade the roster since Schiano's hiring after the 2011 season. And while they've never fired a coach during the season, they've also shown they won't hesitate to abruptly pull the plug when they feel change is necessary.
Tony Dungy was dismissed after a disappointing playoff loss. Jon Gruden, who won Tampa Bay's only Super Bowl title after replacing Dungy, was axed with three years remaining on his contract.
Schiano has said he doesn't think his job is in jeopardy. Despite benching and eventually releasing Freeman in what he described as a "performance-based" decision, the coach insists the pieces are in place to be successful.
"We have good players, proven methods, good schemes, good coaches. When you have all those good components and you're doing things the right way it'll turn," Schiano said.
"Everybody that's been in competitive athletics goes through some stretches where they wish it was better. ... Now you're kidding yourself if you don't have the components. Then you're just wishing," he added. "I know we have the components, so we've just got to stick to our guns and it'll turn."
Despite Schiano's insistence that Freeman's situation was not a distraction, teammates clearly had become weary of talking about his benching.
Glennon is a third-round pick that veterans have no choice but to rally around moving forward.
"We can't turn on each other," defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said. "It's times like this where you see teams start to crumble, because internally they start to implode. (We) can't do that. We have to get stronger ... look in the mirror first, see what we did as individuals wrong, what we can do better and then lift each other up."
Two of the teams three losses with Freeman in the lineup came on last-second field goals. The Bucs led the Cardinals 10-0 entering the fourth quarter before Glennon lost a fumble and threw two interceptions, helping Arizona rally to spoil an otherwise solid — if unspectacular — performance.
The Bucs' open date gives him an extra week to prepare for his next start, at home against Philadelphia.
The 23-year-old Glennon, a former backup to Russell Wilson at North Carolina State before becoming Wolfpack starter as a junior, is quickly getting acclimated to his new role as the lead voice on offense.
"Those guys have done a really good job making me feel comfortable. They've been extremely complimentary and encouraging, they know that the quarterback is in control of the huddle, and those guys have all eyes on me when I walk in," Glennon said. "They've really just done a really good job of kind of making me feel like I belong out there and that I'm in charge."
With Revis and a rejuvenated pass rush leading the way, the defense has made dramatic improvement over a year ago, when Tampa Bay finished last in the league in pass defense and tied for 29th in sacks.
So far, there's no indication of finger-pointing in the locker room. However, the offense knows it has to carry its share of the load if the team is going to salvage the season.
"(There are) a lot of positives in the last month. I think we're going in the right direction. Coach (Schiano), I really think, stepped it up a lot. You see him really challenging himself, challenging the players, and you really see some of the leaders around here really stepping up and leading, because it's easy to just tank it right now and say, 'We're 0-4, we're not going to make the playoffs, there's not much to play for,' " guard Davin Joseph said. "But I think we have the right kind of guys here."
Schiano is counting on it. His job may depend on it.
"I know this team will stay together. These first four don't count any more than the next 12, so we'll take them one at a time," the coach said.
"If we didn't have players and we didn't have good coaches, I'd be more concerned. But I am concerned because we're not doing it," Schiano added. "So, we've got to get the tide turned, get to playing the way we're capable of. That all starts with me. As the head coach, I've got to make sure that we're doing everything we can, in our power, to perform better."
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