The trouble in Tampa Bay

TAMPA, Fla. -- He looks as if he could've been one of them at some point, with his beefy arms and gap-toothed smile. There was a time, years ago, when Greg Schiano could have sold a whole room with his conviction. He'd sit on strangers' couches, in Oakland, N.J., or Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and make promises. Give me your boy, he'd say, and I'll bring him back a man. Trust me, he'd say. And they would.

But then there were no boys left, only men. Schiano, former hero at Rutgers University, started his second season with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in a meeting room in late July. He gathered dozens of men together, millionaires with Range Rovers, grunts who'd be gone within weeks. He showed a video clip of the Super Bowl, told the Bucs they were good enough to be there and passed around a sheet of paper with a connect-the-dots puzzle. The connected dots revealed a picture of the Lombardi trophy.

The goals were by no means a stretch. The Bucs had eight Pro Bowlers and newly acquired defensive stars Darrelle Revis and Dashon Goldson. They'd make it if they stayed together and followed Schiano's theme of Trust, Belief and Accountability -- TBA, as he liked to call it. Trust the system, believe in him, be accountable for yourself.

Schiano didn't know that in three months his team would be 0-7 and he'd be fighting for his job. He didn't know that by the first week of training camp, he'd already lost them.

Every now and then, there is an NFL team trapped in a season so miserable, so rife with drama and strange-but-true turns, that it almost becomes a cross between Murphy's Law, a sitcom and a disaster scene. You cannot look away, even though the ending is inevitable.

These are the 2013 Tampa Bay Buccaneers. They had a players-only meeting before the regular season even started. They had a controversy over possible tampering with the vote for team captains. They were struck by MRSA, a staph infection resistant to antibiotics, and it got so bad that the NFL and NFLPA had to step in and work in unison in what one source called "basically crisis management." In a way, the MRSA outbreak has been a metaphor for the Bucs this season -- a seemingly ever-present infection, creating a distraction off the field, plaguing them wherever they go. A clean-up crew was dispatched in Atlanta to scrub the visitors' locker room in the Georgia Dome after the Bucs played the Falcons; in last week's Thursday night game against Carolina, the Panthers carefully laid towels all over the locker room floor at Raymond James Stadium out of fear of catching anything in Tampa.

"We didn't really want to touch anything in here," Carolina safety Mike Mitchell said. "We just wanted to get in and out.

"[Dealing with that] every day, man, that would suck."

The season opener was lost on a personal-foul penalty in the final seconds. The game, against the New York Jets, started with communication problems when quarterback Josh Freeman's headset malfunctioned. And that was fitting. The first two games were lost by a combined three points. Week 2 provided a glimpse of how good the Bucs could have been, when they narrowly missed beating New Orleans. It was downhill from there.

Tensions bubbled between Schiano and Freeman, and on Oct. 3, the Bucs cut their fifth-year starter. Along the way, there were daily headlines about Freeman being barred from the Tampa Bay sideline and questions about who leaked information that the quarterback was participating in the NFL's Stage 1 drug treatment program. Schiano, when previously asked whether he was the source of the information, said "absolutely not." (Freeman later issued a statement saying his participation is voluntary and that he tested positive after switching his ADHD medicine.)

This week, it's finally quiet in Tampa. The news trucks have pulled away and moved on to something different, something relevant.

"They seem like a team that's just beaten down," said a former NFL executive, speaking under the condition of anonymity. "Let's just say that place right now has a culture of mistrust on many different levels.

"It manifests itself. They don't trust what they're being told, they don't trust the message and they don't trust that people are looking out for them. It's not going to end well."

Almost every new regime starts because someone else has failed. Before Schiano left the calm waters of Rutgers for this choppy voyage into the NFL, the Buccaneers were led by Raheem Morris, a young, laid-back man known widely as a players' coach. The Bucs played hard for Morris in 2010, when they went 10-6 and narrowly missed a playoff berth. But when he was fired after a 4-12 record the next season, the franchise sought out a different personality, a disciplinarian.

Schiano started off his first training camp in 2012 with a conditioning test. The Bucs were to run 110 yards from the back of the end zone to the opposite goal line and had to make it in an allotted time that varied according to position. They ran the 110 yards 16 times. If a player failed to hit his time in any of the 16 runs, he flunked the test and had to do it again before he could practice.

According to a couple of accounts, several players vomited in the oppressive Florida heat and others required IV fluids. Hamstrings pulled, and those who emerged unscathed were fatigued by early August.

"Everyone thinks he started losing the team recently," former Bucs defensive end E.J. Wilson said. "He started losing the team around the middle of training camp last year. It never really came out, but there were a lot of guys who were not happy being there. A lot of the veteran guys were like, 'We're going to give it a chance,' but it kind of felt like they weren't really being treated like men.

"It was almost like being a freshman in college all over again. You were nervous of being made an example of for breaking one small rule."

Wilson was coming back from a torn Achilles in the summer of 2012. He was hurting one day during camp, so a trainer pulled him from a workout. Wilson said Schiano spotted him on an exercise bike and insisted he practice or Schiano would find somebody else who would.

Wilson was eventually cut from the team in 2012 and said he's finished playing football, in part, because of his experiences with Schiano. There was a weeding-out process that offseason, an effort to cast out the players who clearly weren't Schiano guys.

A Schiano guy is mentally tough and disciplined. He puts team above everything. Derrick Roberson, who played for Schiano at Rutgers and Tampa Bay, said the conditioning tests were a tool to see who was all-in and who wasn't; who trained in the offseason and who didn't.

But in the Bucs' locker room, the complaints mounted. Most players hadn't run those kinds of drills since college, before their bodies were older and beat up. Roberson heard the grumblings. "They felt like he treated them like they were kids," he said.

Roberson tried to tell them about the Schiano he knew, about the man who did everything he promised, who made him a man. Rutgers had never won a bowl game in 137 years of football before Schiano led them to victory. Trust, Belief, Accountability. The 2006 team bought in, wore bracelets with the mantra and played Kansas State -- and Freeman -- in the Texas Bowl. Roberson had a shoulder injury and a hip flexor and needed to be shot up with cortisone to play. And when Rutgers beat the Wildcats, Schiano found Roberson and whispered in his ear.

"You have me for life," Schiano told him.

So Roberson, like other Scarlet Knights who were added to that Tampa roster, tried to plead Schiano's case. Their teammates weren't exactly receptive.

The rules were too rigid. No hats in the meeting room. No earrings at practice. No conspiring in small groups. Schiano, who's big on hydration, required each player to be armed with two bottles of water during training camp meetings.

"They focus on stuff that doesn't need to be focused on," one former Bucs player said. "I don't dance unless I hear music. If I'm not thirsty, I'm not going to drink water."

There were signs, by December 2012, that Freeman wasn't Schiano's guy. The coach started to waffle a bit in interviews when asked about his confidence in the quarterback. Freeman was easygoing and confident. Nothing seemed to rattle him, and he was at his best when everything seemed to be falling apart. Schiano is a details guy, a man who likes to plan and prepare for everything.

Freeman's camp is convinced that Schiano knew, for at least a year, that he didn't want Freeman. And that he was just waiting for an excuse to cut ties with the quarterback. Freeman missed a team photo because he overslept. That no doubt drew the ire of a coach who preaches accountability. By early in the season, it was clear they had irreconcilable differences and couldn't coexist.

"This is the NFL, and successful organizations are a delicate balance," a source close to Freeman said. "If you take someone as significant as your quarterback out of the equation at the wrong time, you jack up the whole system."

There are varying accounts as to what was discussed in that players-only meeting before the season started. Some say it was the captains vote, a vote that did not pick Freeman. Others say it was an impromptu pep rally. It is clear that during training camp, a group of players met with Schiano in an attempt to tone down his extra-rigorous workouts. The coach, according to sources, told the players that they had to trust him and that he knew what he was doing. The workouts did not get any easier.

Sources told ESPN.com that the Bucs nearly went under review by the NFLPA last spring for their offseason workout practices that were considered violations of the collective bargaining agreement. Schiano declined a one-on-one interview request for this story.

In news conferences, he'll say he's working as hard and as smart as he can and that he can't let the outside world affect him. But now there's a billboard in Tampa that says "Fire Schiano." And near Raymond James Stadium, signs advertise Bucs tickets for as low as $30.

The 31-13 loss to the Carolina Panthers on Oct. 24 was possibly the lowest point of Schiano's tenure so far. Boos and chants calling for his demise rained down from the stands. Schiano did not slow down or acknowledge it. After the game, he marched briskly ahead, past the events staffers in the tunnel. "I feel sorry for that guy," one of the staffers said.

Football is a game of centimeters and miles, of luck and despair, and who knows where his team would be without a penalty in Week 1 or a couple of misses in Week 2? Who knows where the Bucs would be if they had trust or belief?

"I've had some years where we haven't won very much, but it almost made sense, you know what I mean?" Bucs kicker Rian Lindell said. "I look around this room … we have the talent. And when our offense takes the field, I think, 'OK, we're going to drive down.' Same thing with the defense. I think, 'We're going to stop them.' It just hasn't happened. It hasn't clicked."

Outside the stadium, hours before the Carolina game, there was optimism. A man dressed in a pirate suit walked around assuring fans that it would be their night and that the losing skid would end. Tailgaters waved their pewter and red flags. This is a patient city. In 1976, the Bucs went 0-14, the first team to go an entire season without a win or a tie. But that was an expansion team. There are no answers for this.

Across the street from the stadium, Jim Kerr, a construction worker in Tampa, wondered when the skid would end. He has missed two home games since 1976, one because of the flu, another because of a buddy's bachelor party. He vomited both times, he said.

Kerr keeps coming to the games because, like many others in Tampa, he's loyal. But things could get ugly in the next few weeks. On Sunday, the Bucs visit the Seattle Seahawks, who are 7-1 and leading the NFC West. Then there's a "Monday Night Football" home game against the Dolphins in a stadium that could be angry and could be half empty.

In this dysfunctional, unbelievable season, nobody knows what will happen next.

"If we had a roof," Kerr said, "it would've caved in this year."