Sunday, December 10, 2017

The Unemployment Bowl?

BY SCOTT MORGANROTH
PHOTOS BY CANDICE EBLING

There are no shortage of memories when I cover a Lions vs Tampa Bay Buccaneers road game.

Whether the venue is the demolished Tampa Stadium or Raymond James Stadium, there have been some nice story lines.

On Sunday, October 12, 1997, I remember wishing Lions Hall of Fame running back Barry Sanders luck at the team hotel in the morning where we were staying. Barry in his polite way, said thanks and shook my hand with a smile.

That day, he wasn't shaking any Tampa Bay Bucs players hands, just having their defenders shake their heads as he became the first player in NFL History to record two 80-yard TD runs in the same game. He broke off an 80-yard scoring play late in the first quarter and added an 82-yard touchdown romp in the third quarter, finishing the day with 215 yards.

The Lions won the game 27-9 in Tampa Stadium and even though there is no cheering allowed in the press box, it was hard to confiscate media credentials during such an incredible and memorable performance when we all cheered.

At the time, My longtime friend Chip Namias was the Director of Media Relations of the Buccaneers, and I told him after the game that it was neat to be a part of this type of history.

Chip smiled and agreed that it was an unbelievable day.

I have made other appearances in Raymond James Stadium including covering a Super Bowl featuring the Pittsburgh Steelers vs the Arizona Cardinals.

But one regular season game that stood out occurred on December 19, 2010 as Detroit ended a 26-game road losing streak when they claimed a 23-20 overtime win at Tampa Bay.

The Lions would proceed to win another road game in Florida as they defeated the Miami Dolphins on December 26, 2010, 34-27.

Detroit was 2-0 in The Sunshine State in 2010.

Here on December 10, 2017, the Detroit Lions had another important contest as they attempted to keep their playoff hopes alive.

Coming off a pair of losses to the Minnesota Vikings and Baltimore Ravens the past couple weeks, there were no shortage of story lines.

There is always speculation of Coach Jim Caldwell's job status, and this week, QB Matthew Stafford has been battling a hand injury.

Detroit entered the game with a 6-6 mark while Tampa Bay was 4-8.

The Lions came away with a 24-21 win as Matt Prater booted a 46-yard field goal with 20 seconds left to play as Detroit improved to 7-6.

The Lions got an early Christmas gift as Tampa Bay committed five turnovers. Detroit also benefited from two successful replay challenges.

Stafford was 36-44 for 381 yards and a touchdown.

He knew that Detroit better not look past the Buccaneers or any chances of getting into the playoffs wouldn't occur.

"Yeah, you throw the tape on these guys and they're talented, they're extremely talented," Stafford said. "They got a lot of guys at every level on the defense, 93 (Gerald McCoy), 54 (Lavonte David), 24 (Brent Grimes)--they got guys that can wreck the game, and really make big plays, and they did some today.

"And then our defense having to defend that offense, I mean, Jameis (Winston) is as talented as anybody in the league and they've got some big-time receivers and tight-ends, have a good running game. This is the NFL; we know every time we show up on a Sunday it is going to be a big one."

When asked about the Lions being able to make plays in the last minutes of games, Stafford added, "I just think we have a lot of confidence. I think guys that have been around here have understood that's kind of sometimes the way the game boils down and we go out there and make plays and when you have success, it breeds confidence.

"Frankly, there's been times this year where we haven't been successful in those situations, some close calls in some other games. It feels good to get back out there and have a two-minute drive, go out there and win the game."

Caldwell deflected any talk about his job security as he has so many times during his tenure with the Lions especially when a report surfaced that his contract was guaranteed through the end of the 2018 season.

"We never, never ever, ever been in the practice of talking about contracts and anything of that nature, and we're certainly not going to start today," Caldwell said. "There's no (security) it's coaching. That's the way it is."

Caldwell praised Stafford and was relieved to get an important win.

"Yeah, tough guy. Tough guy who heals real quickly," Caldwell said. "Really, it's always been that way. He's a great leader and did a tremendous job out there for us under some tough circumstances, I should say.

"You know, it was a key win for us. It was key for us to play a team that is very hard to beat in this stadium with Jameis back there playing. They've got weapons. They've got people that can run. Overall, it's a talented team. If you can get one on the road in this league, it's a good thing."

There has been no shortage of close games in Caldwell's coaching stint in Detroit and this was no exception.

"It's been a hallmark of ours," he said. "We've been able to battle at the end. Our guys show great resiliance, and they don't get nervous in tough situations at the end of games. They find a way to win it. It might not always be pretty---we'd always been like that---but we lost a few this year just the opposite the side of that.

"Atlanta, Carolina, and a couple others that were close right there at the end. We weren't able to finish them, so we have been uncharacteristic in the middle portion of the season. So hopefully we can see if we can continue to do that and be a little better this next week."

The one thing which has always been consistent when I attend a Lions game in this area is there is no shortage of Detroit colors on display. Sunday was no exception. There are a lot of transplants from Michigan that live in the Tampa Bay Area and the Tigers train 45 minutes away in Lakeland.

One puzzling inactive was Detroit running back Ameer Abdullah.

Once again, Caldwell wouldn't get into too elaborate of an answer when it came to why he sat him and what the future holds into using him as a feature back.

"We don't go into details about everything, but obviously he's still nursing an injury," Caldwell said. "He's coming a long. I think he'll be ready to go here shortly. We don't talk about number ones, number twos. That's you guys business. We have a three man rotation. With the three guys that we have up, all three guys play."

With Abdullah inactive, the Lions rushing attack mustered up only 53 yards, led by Theo Riddick, who amassed 29 yards and two touchdowns.

There is no doubt there will be continued talk about Caldwell's employment status and he is focusing on the Lions next opponent, Chicago.

Stafford was having no part of this conversation after the contest.

"Listen man, we go out and play and he goes and coaches," Stafford said. "He understands part of the business, we understand, who knows. I'm not on social media so I don't give a crap but we just go play, man. We go play, he goes and coaches, our job is to win football games. That's what we're trying to do."

There is no shortage of drama in the Tampa Bay locker room as a report surfaced that Winston's relationship with Coach Dirk Koetter is deteriorating.

The Bucs 4-9 record is going to do nothing to quiet that talk regardless of what Winston said.

The loss to Detroit eliminated Tampa Bay from the playoffs.

My sources say that Koetter will be terminated at the end of the season.

On Monday, December 18, former Coach Jon Gruden will be inducted into the teams Ring of Honor as he coached the team from 2002-2008, compiled a 57-55 record and led the franchise to it's only Super Bowl Title.

One person who should be in The Bucs Ring of Honor is Tony Dungy.

He led Tampa to a 54-42 mark and his squads made the playoffs in four of his six seasons at the helm. Dungy is Tampa's all-time winning coach with a .556 percentage.

You can rest assure, there will be a lot of talk about bringing Gruden back to roam the sidelines at Raymond James Stadium. I've always thought highly of Gruden as a head coach, but in reality, he won it with the talent Dungy molded together.

If Tampa Bay was smart, they should try to get Dungy to leave his cozy seat at NBC and return to coaching.

Tampa Bay QB Winston threw for 285 yards and a pair of touchdowns.

But on this day, Winston refused to speculate on Koetter's job status.

"I don't control that. That's not my place. I play quarterback for this organization, that's all I play," Winston said. "When you lose, everything gets blamed on one guy: the head coach and quarterback and I'm ok with that. I'm pretty sure Coach Koetter is ok with that. We don't care about that stuff. All we care about is each other, our family and trying to win.

"I've been with Coach Koetter since I've got in this league and he has not wronged me since I stepped foot in those doors. We have a great relationship first and foremost.

"I believe in what we have in what we have as an organization. We've got talent. Some unfortunate things happened. That's life. That's football. Some people can blame it on this, some people can blame it on that. But at the end of the day, we've got to win. As long as we are winning, no one is sitting here asking me questions about me and my head coach. No one."

Koetter also addressed the reports about him and his quarterback and said, "It's obviously news to me. I think Jameis and I have had an extremely consistent relationship for the last three years. I don't think anything is different about it, but it's just my opinion.

"What concerns me is that we aren't winning enough games. That's my biggest concern. I mean, I know about our relationship, but my biggest concern is our football team."

On January 1, 2018, the Michigan Wolverines face the University of South Carolina Gamecocks in the Outback Bowl in this very stadium.

The question remains which one of these coaches will be employed by either of these organizations.

But to Caldwell's credit, he's been facing job uncertainty for quite some time and always finds a way to keep winning to quiet that talk.

He follows like Morris The Cat and has Nine Lives.

At least Stafford always has his back and this gunslinger will continue to battle through what he calls "Crap" as this duo works towards its goal of reaching the postseason.

To be frankly honest with you, I'm sick and tired of writing about Caldwell losing his job because as I've mentioned before, he's one of the best coaches Detroit has had in years.

If Detroit does terminate him, unless General Manager Bob Quinn were to hire Josh McDaniels away from his former club the New England Patriots, and that's no sure bet it would work out, who would the Lions bring in to get better?

It will be interesting to see how the rest of the season plays out.

But all the Lions have to do is simply win games and there next three opponents are the Chicago Bears, Cincinnati Bengals and Green Bay Packers.

The Bears and Packers are at home but unfortunately for Detroit, Aaron Rodgers could
very well be back in the lineup. But as the old adage says, it's important to take these games one at a time.

But as I take a moment to reflect on this game, the Lions did get another three point win that nearly went to overtime and it was an exciting finish.

For myself, it was great seeing my old Tampa Tribune colleagues Roy Cummings and Joey Johnston again.

We worked together from 1984-86, but it seems like yesterday that we were all covering High School Sports.

As a University of South Florida graduate, it was nice to be back in my old stomping grounds doing what I enjoy doing and that's covering Pro Football.

Scott Morganroth can be reached at www.scottsports33.com.

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