Senior National Columnist
TAMPA — For a moment Sunday afternoon, everything looked normal again. Tom Brady had thrown a dart that sliced between two defenders to find Russell Gage near the back of the end zone for a touchdown. This was the G.O.A.T. stuff the biggest Buccaneers game crowd in Raymond James Stadium history had come for, which had been limited by mistakes, penalties and the Green Bay defense all day. But with 18 seconds remaining, this had the makings of a classic Brady ending. All that was needed was a two-point conversion to send the game to overtime.
And then the Bucs couldn’t get set. They took a delay of game penalty and another pass to Gage fell incomplete.
Metaphorically, a failure to get set, a lack of execution, has been the story of the offense — which has managed just three touchdowns in three games — this season. But it was literally the issue here, in the Bucs’ 14-12 loss to the Packers, and it wasn’t a surprising one. An offense that was down its two primary targets, and that held out a third weapon, and that signed a player off the street early last week and elevated him off the practice squad in the morning and then threw the second pass of the day to him — that offense is probably not going to have the smoothest operation in the heat of the moment, even if Brady gave up his veteran day off to take every rep in practice this week.
“We’re not running as good as we’re capable, that passing game hasn’t been very good,” Brady said with a tired-looking smile.
The picture of the day was one of Brady ducking under a potential sack and chugging — not exactly sprinting — for 18 yards on third down late in the third quarter, breaking his knee brace when he slid. He said later he saw a lot of green grass in front of him, but what he couldn’t see was the holding penalty behind him that wiped out the play entirely. The drive ended with a punt, instead of continuing with the Bucs near midfield.
Brady joked that it is usually not a good thing. But this was more than that, symbolic of how many chances the Bucs had despite the absences, how very often they made it harder on themselves. The Bucs’ defense was stellar, shutting out Aaron Rodgers in the second half. They allowed the Packers just two touchdowns on the day, forced two turnovers, including a fumble as the Packers were about to go in for a touchdown, and the Bucs could not capitalize.
“We didn’t have to have those guys to win this ballgame,” said a visibly frustrated coach Todd Bowles. “We just had to play smarter. We had chances to win this game. We shot ourselves in the foot. Talent had nothing to do with the way we shot ourselves in the foot.”
Bowles was so annoyed that when he was asked about Gage’s performance — he caught 12 passes for 87 yards and a touchdown — he replied that anytime a player fumbles, it takes away everything good he does.
The truth is that everything looked nearly as difficult for the Packers, who are not whole and not running smoothly either. Aaron Jones fumbled near the goal line in the second quarter and the Packers almost completely abandoned the run after that. Rodgers settled mostly for short passes, finishing with 27 completions for 255 yards. The anticipated aerial fireworks that had made this game so attractive when the schedule was announced were canceled by the absences and inexperience that cloud these teams right now.
The Bucs and Packers remain two of the NFC’s best teams — they are each 2-1 and are certainly Super Bowl contenders. And for the Bucs, who entered the game with a very un-Brady like 18th-ranked scoring offense, time should heal most of their wounds. Mike Evans will return from suspension, Bowles said Julio Jones could have played this week and will probably be back next Sunday when the Bucs face the Kansas City Chiefs, Chris Godwin will presumably eventually return and Beasley, of course, will have more than three days of experience in the offense.
Most importantly, the defense is intact and Brady certainly did not come out of retirement and open himself to rampant speculation about everything from his weight to his marriage to accept a season like this. He, as much as anybody in the NFL, sets the standard for the entire Bucs operation and, if the fate of those poor tablets last week is any indication, he will demand — perhaps more angrily than he shows in press conferences — improvement.
Brady, in fact, seemed more weary than angry Sunday, which is not what would be said about Bowles. He was careful not to overly laud his defense to the exclusion of the offense, saying the Bucs win and lose as an entire team.
“We can be tough and we can fight but that’s not going to win us the game,” he said. “We have to be cleaner.”
A hurricane is threatening to hit Florida later this week and Bowles was asked about what preparations the team had made. Bowles said a few conversations had taken place. More are certainly to come. After all, the Bucs are already in the middle of a storm of their own creation.
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