The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are taking a long, hard look in the mirror following Sunday's troubling 21-3 loss to the Carolina Panthers.
Head coach Todd Bowles hopes the low point will be one that wakes up a skidding team that has dropped four of its past five games.
"We're not playing well," Bowles told reporters following the game. "We're not playing well as individuals, we're not playing well as a team, we're not coaching well. All the way around. Not scoring enough on offense, not stopping them enough on defense.
"As a result, we have to wear this on our sleeve. They've got to be grown men and we're going to see what we're made of, how many people can handle adversity. It's about as dark as it's going to be right now."
Tampa mustered a season-low three points against a one-win Carolina squad that just traded its star player (Christian McCaffrey) and is led by an interim head coach (Steve Wilks). Outlining the Bucs' offensive struggles has several starting points, but a Mike Evans drop that erased a would-be 64-yard touchdown on their opening drive set the table for a frustrating day of poor execution all around.
"No one play is the sole reason you lose but that was definitely the biggest reason," Evans said after the game, per NFL Network's Sara Walsh. "I've seen the life go out of us. It took me awhile to get back playing, you know, your thoughts are just play the next play but it was tough. Wide open, you know, one of the best in the game -- I've got to catch that. I've got to get that."
Tom Brady led an offense that struggled to find any rhythm. especially once crossing midfield. Whether it be more dropped passes, poor timing on throws, lack of communication between receivers, a futile rushing attack and subpar blocking from the offensive line, the Bucs' problems amounted to a frustrating day despite committing zero turnovers. The issues eventually effected the play-calling down the stretch, as the Bucs converted just 2 of 12 third-downs, settled for a field goal on its lone red-zone possession and was 1 of 3 on fourth-down tries.
"It's never one play," said Brady, who finished 32-of-49 passing for 290 yards. "It's a lot of plays and we're not playing the way we're capable of. It's obvious."
Brady was held to three points or fewer for only the fifth time in his 23-year career. The 45-year-old G.O.A.T. had two such games in his first 20 seasons with the Patriots and now has three such games in three seasons with the Buccaneers, according to NFL Research.
"We talked about execution the other day and it still comes up," Brady said. "I think we all just need to do our job better. There's no easy way about it. They're trying to keep us from doing our job, we're trying to do it, and they're doing a better job than we are. Anytime you score three points, that pretty much sums it up."
The struggling offense ultimately let down a usually stout Bucs defense that tired down the stretch. It too had its fair share of issues evident in the 173 rushing yards given up to a team now without McCaffrey and starting its backup quarterback in P.J. Walker. The Bucs menacing pass rush was held to one sack on the day and didn't force a turnover for the third consecutive game.
"Toughness. You've got to have mental toughness and mental fortitude," Bowles said. "The older guys got to prove they can still play and the younger guys got to prove that they belong and the coaches got to get better every day."
Remarkably, the Bucs (3-4) remain atop the NFC South entering Week 8, but fixing things won't come easy as Tampa enters a short week against the Baltimore Ravens (4-3) this Thursday night.
Bowles will have plenty of fuel to fire up is team following Sunday's embarrassing loss, but there will be plenty of reason to panic if they don't promptly fix their issues.
"Those guys that are going to step up are gonna show up this week in practice, " Bowles said. "Our leaders are going to lead and our coaches are going to coach, and we're just going to dig and keep our head down.
"It's a prideful football game, and that's really all you come into the world when you start playing this game is either you can or you can't. We're going to see what we have going forward, see how many people crumble when it's dark, see how many people step up and start playing better and start coaching better."