When Greg Schiano took over as head coach in Tampa Bay prior to the 2012 season, he inherited a team riding a 10-game losing streak.
Last year's Buccaneers started off well enough -- they were 6-4 after posting an overtime win at Carolina in mid-November -- but again struggled down the stretch, dropping five of their last six, including a 28-13 decision to the visiting Rams just before Christmas.
Tampa Bay's struggles carried over into this season as a string of tight early losses and some off-field distractions spiraled into an 0-8 start. But the Buccaneers (4-10) have bounced back to win four of six heading into Sunday's noon kickoff against the Rams (6-8) at the Edward Jones Dome.
This is not a team the Rams can take lightly.
"They were close in some games despite the fact they lost eight straight," Rams head coach Jeff Fisher pointed out. "They hung in there. Their defense is playing with discipline (and) they're getting a lot of turnovers. They run the football and the quarterback's throwing the ball well, so it's a talented team. It's a very dangerous team at the end of the season."
Quarterback Kellen Clemens agreed: "They had the adversity early in the season, but have certainly overcome that and are on a bit of a roll. ... They're very talented."
Despite the late-season struggles in 2012, the Buccaneers entered this season with high hopes. The additions of Pro Bowlers Darrelle Revis and Dashon Goldson and second-round draft pick Johnthan Banks helped shore up a secondary that allowed 297.4 passing yards a game last year, the second-most in NFL history.
The Buccaneers are 13th in overall defense, ranking 15th against the run and the pass.
Offensively, Tampa Bay seemed to have plenty of weapons coming into the new campaign, including quarterback Josh Freeman, who set franchise records for passing yards (4,065) and touchdowns (27) in 2012, running back Doug Martin, who ran for nearly 1,500 yards, caught 49 passes and scored 12 touchdowns as a rookie last year, and Vincent Jackson, one of the most consistent receivers in the NFL.
But the optimism quickly faded when the Buccaneers opened the season with tough-to-swallow losses to the Jets (18-17 on a field goal with 32 seconds to play) and Saints (16-14 on a field goal with 5 seconds to play) before falling 23-3 at New England.
At that point, Schiano benched Freeman in favor of rookie Mike Glennon, the team's third-round pick out of North Carolina State. But the struggles continued as Tampa Bay blew a 10-0 fourth-quarter lead in a 13-10 home loss to Arizona on a field goal with 1:29 to play.
Going into the bye week at 0-4, the Buccaneers were a team in turmoil. Fans and media were calling for Schiano's job; a Tampa radio station went so far as to put up a "Fire Schiano" billboard. Freeman, in a contract year after being chosen in the first round of the 2009 draft, was cut after news of his participation in the league's substance-abuse program was leaked to the media and after the team failed in an attempt to trade him.
Injuries have also plagued the Buccaneers, especially on offense, where both Martin (shoulder) and his backup, rookie Mike James (ankle), were limited to six and eight games, respectively, before undergoing season-ending surgeries. They are two of Tampa Bay's 15 players on injured reserve.
But through the controversy, the injuries and the losses, Schiano -- and his team -- have maintained their focus.
"Early in the year, we found ways to lose some games ... a very strange year," said Schiano, who joined Tampa Bay after an impressive 11-year run as head coach at Rutgers. "We've stuck together -- no finger-pointing -- they're playing for each other.
"It was difficult, sure. Dealing with it yourself, you know 99 percent of it's not true, so you just try not to let it get to you. As far as the team, we have a great group of leaders that pave the way for the young guys to follow and who stay accountable to one another."
One of those team leaders is Jackson, a 6-foot-5, 230-pound receiver who signed as a free agent before the 2012 season and leads the team this season with 69 catches, 1,091 yards and seven touchdowns. A three-time All-Pro, Jackson has eclipsed 1,000 receiving yards in five of the last six seasons and set career marks in catches (72) and receiving yards (1,384) while leading the NFL in per-catch average (19.2) a year ago.
The Rams showed some interest in Jackson following the 2011 season but backed off before things got too serious. He signed a five-year deal with Tampa Bay for $55.55 million.
"When we're on the grass, we're just thinking about football and executing and doing our jobs," the 30-year-old said. "Stuff outside the field, I guess if you're really listening to it and paying attention to it, it can become a distraction. But for most of the guys out here, it's about business. It's about playing football and doing what we need to do to win games.
"It wasn't as bad as it may have looked from the outside."
In spite of their struggles, the Buccaneers seem to be playing hard for Schiano. Following a 27-24 overtime loss in Seattle that dropped it to 0-8, Tampa Bay followed up on wins at home over Miami and Atlanta with a road victory in Detroit. They fell 27-6 in Carolina on Dec. 1, but won by the same score the next week against Buffalo.
Even in last weekend's 33-14 loss to San Francisco to close out their home schedule, the Buccaneers were down just 20-14 early in the final quarter before the 49ers pulled away.
"I think we're just playing more complete football," Jackson said when asked about the team's recent success. "We're taking care of the ball a little bit better, getting in better rhythm earlier in the game and putting ourselves in a position to be successful in the end. Has that been consistent throughout? No, but we still believe in the system and what we're doing and it's fun to see guys still playing hard out there."
With his future in Tampa Bay uncertain, Schiano is simply focused on doing his job. And he expects the same of his players.
"I don't worry about that stuff at all, to be honest with you," he said. "As I ask our team to do, I do ... we talk about it as 16 one-game seasons and right now, we're smack-dab in the middle of the St. Louis season and trying to put every ounce of energy that we have into finding a way to win this game. That's how I approach it and that's how I ask our team to approach it."
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