There’s a light at the end of the tunnel for Greg Schiano.
Six weeks ago that vision was spectral, calling for Schiano to head toward the light as someone dying would be called over to the other side. Schiano’s professional career—at least his tenure with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers—was dying. His team was 0-8 and the angry mob was circling with pitchforks and billboards.
Since then, Schiano’s Bucs are 4-1, and that wash of brightness seen ahead is no longer a beacon welcoming or predicting death. The light Schiano now sees at the end of his tunnel is an opening, a way to come out on the other side of a season that almost caved in all around him.
After the Bucs dismantled the Buffalo Bills 27-6 in Week 14, cornerback Darrelle Revis told Bobby Lewis of WTSP-TV in St. Petersburg that momentum is a huge factor in what’s going on with the Bucs at the moment.
I remember you know when we were in a slump of losing. I was just saying, 'One win will change everything.' Once we got our first win, I think this team really got used to, 'Hey, hey, we know I'm to win now.'
We just kept on rolling. We got three in a row and we actually lost one last week and actually won this one. So, it's just once you get on a winning streak that momentum can go for a while.
During that five-game stretch where Tampa Bay’s only loss was to the playoff-bound Carolina Panthers, the team has come out of its shell. The defense has stepped up, reducing its points per game average from 23.7 in the first eight games of the season to 20.2 over the last five. But it’s Tampa Bay’s scoring output that’s been really impressive.
When the Bucs were losing eight in a row, they averaged 15.5 points per game and only scored 20 or more points three times. In the five games since, Tampa Bay is averaging 24 points per game and has eclipsed the 20-point mark in four contests.
Sure, detractors will be the first to point out that a few of those four wins have come against teams like the Atlanta Falcons or the Bills, clubs firmly entrenched at the bottom of their divisions. But for a team that started 0-8, any win, or group of wins, is reason to take notice.
Another reason to take into account Tampa Bay’s winning ways of late under Schiano is because the team gave him enough time to turn things around.
Droves of people—fans, members of the media and even players—questioned whether Schiano should be fired. The voices were loud in September and October. Since the Glazer family and the Tampa Bay brass allowed Schiano to stay, don’t they have to factor in his wins in recent weeks just as heavily as the rough patch prior?
Winning is expected, and winning is definitely job security. Well, Schiano is winning.
Just as important as winning is the fact that Schiano never lost his locker room. You don’t have to travel too far back in Bucs history to remember a head coach that lost control of his players.
In 2011 Raheem Morris lost control of the locker room. His players gave up on him after losing 10 straight to finish the season. Morris was shown the door afterwards.
Schiano is in a much different boat. His players are fighting. His players are improving.
Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy had two sacks during the first eight games of the season. Since then he’s leveled the quarterback five times, including three sacks in the game against the Falcons.
After the Bucs beat the Detroit Lions, linebacker Lavonte David was named NFC Defensive Player of the Week. Over the last four weeks, only four players in the league have more than David’s 39 tackles, and Schiano thinks very highly of the second-year pro.
Not only are Schiano’s players improving, they’re also stepping up when needed. Tampa Bay’s run game should have taken a huge hit when Doug Martin was injured. But Mike James stepped up and broke off a 158-yard game against the Seattle Seahawks.
When James was injured all hope should have been lost for the Bucs to run the football. But then Bobby Rainey appeared from nowhere. Rainey has posted two 100-yard-or-better rushing games in the last four weeks and shown that Schiano can get the most from even players buried on the depth chart.
Improvement can not only be seen in Schiano’s players, but at the team level too. The Bucs have had trouble rushing the passer in recent years. While that particular issue hasn’t been completely fixed, through 13 games Tampa Bay already has more sacks this season (31) than it did all of last season (27).
The Buccaneers also lead the league with 21 interceptions right now. Last season, even though they were a top-10 team in picks, the team only picked off 18 passes.
Don’t take this as a ringing endorsement for Schiano 2014—I’m not there yet.
But it’s time to take the names of potential coaching replacements like Lovie Smith and Mike Zimmer and close the Rolodex (to you folks born after 1985, a Rolodex is an old-fashioned organizer and contact book).
Let’s see what Schiano can do in the final three weeks of the season.
Tampa Bay finishes the season at home this week against the San Francisco 49ers, on the road against the Rams in St. Louis and then in New Orleans against the Saints. That’s a brutal three-game stretch.
If the Bucs win one of those games there’ll be a lot of hand-wringing until Schiano’s fate can be decided. It could go either way if Schiano finishes 1-2 over the next three weeks. If Tampa Bay can win twice, though, it’s pretty safe to say he won’t be needing boxes to pack up his office.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and statements were obtained firsthand.
Knox Bardeen is the NFC South lead writer for Bleacher Report and the author of 100 Things Falcons Fans Should Know & Do Before they Die. Be sure to follow Knox on Twitter.