With losses mounting, Bucs can't escape difficult questions

TAMPA, Fla. -- Facing another week and another round of endless questions about why the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' defense continues to struggle, defensive tackle Gerald McCoy made a rather unusual request: no negative questions.

"If you have anything involving negativity, I'm not gonna answer it," the five-time Pro Bowler said Wednesday. "There's too much bad energy and negativity going on. So if you have something positive, let's talk about it, because I'm done answering negative questions.

"That's no disrespect to you guys, because I know that you have a job to do. But I do as well, and that's to make sure that my team has the right energy going into this practice and into this game. So, I'm done answering anything negative."

With all due respect, this is a 4-8 football team. If the Bucs were 8-4, believe me, the media would be talking about chasing the division title and eating bologna sandwiches. And Jacksonville Jaguars defensive back Jalen Ramsey's point of "We ain't talking 'bout last year" would be valid for the Bucs, too.

But that's not the reality of the situation in Tampa.

McCoy's been through this before, with Raheem Morris, Greg Schiano and Lovie Smith. It's his eighth season, and it will very likely be his sixth losing season unless the Bucs win their final four games. He knows the drill. He's just tired of it.

He doesn't just comply with the media in his weekly locker-room availability and Sunday after games -- he usually talks for a good seven or eight minutes. Sometimes he'll stick around longer. His answers are thoughtful. He's polite, never combative. He's engaging and usually gets at least one laugh out of the group too.

But the media's job is to gather information, find answers, to report and to hold people accountable. There's really no "mercy rule" in that. Imagine McCoy making his request in New York or Philadelphia.

To his credit, he's had a strong season and is playing well. He has 5.0 sacks and 22 quarterback hits, a career high and fourth most in the NFL among all defensive players. He's also frequently double-teamed on a unit that isn't getting much, if any, pressure off the edge.

But these questions come with the territory after the Bucs went 9-7 last season and finally received some long-coveted respect. That improvement carries with it the weight of expectations. When you're a star player who soaks up most of the attention on a national TV show like HBO's "Hard Knocks" and you're a team captain, you will be prodded with questions -- sometimes very difficult ones.

It's the same way for head coach Dirk Koetter, who was asked on Wednesday if coordinator Mike Smith's defense was to blame for the team's losing. Smith has been a mentor and a confidant to Koetter since their time together in Jacksonville. Smith passed along a lot of what he learned from Super Bowl-winning head coach Brian Billick and gave Koetter a job when he was head coach of the Atlanta Falcons.

How does Koetter even begin to answer a question like that?

"That's so hard to judge because there is nothing about football that boils down to one person," Koetter said. "It's on me. It's on him. It's on -- [a reporter] asked about Chris Baker. It's on everybody. It's the ultimate team game. No number measures one player or one coach. That's hard to do. Everybody is graded. I tell the team all the time, 'We are all held accountable by somebody. We are all held accountable.' The ultimate thing, though, is it's a team game, we are trying to win and when you don't win, nobody feels good."

That last part -- "We are all held accountable by somebody" resonates. So are reporters.

No doubt that McCoy and his teammates are held accountable behind closed doors in meetings and on the practice field, but there is such a thing as public accountability, too. People want to hear what you have to say, even if it's the commonly repeated phrase "no one has higher expectations for us than us."

Though columns might sway public opinion, and sometimes they even impact the decision-making of teams, they should hold no bearing on how players feel about themselves. If they do, well, if you don't like someone dancing in your end zone, don't let them get there in the first place. But you can't change the narrative.

Rather than asking the media to take it easy, why not ask missing teammates who haven't been around much in the locker room all season to help share some of the responsibility? The Bucs' defensive line is usually very good about being available to the media, and being in the training room is a valid excuse for missing open locker room, but no one has been on the injury report for 12 weeks this season unless they're on injured reserve, and that's a different story.

Not every question is an attack either. Few are. Questions are asked out of genuine interest, for the sake of learning. When we educate ourselves, we educate our readers. When we educate ourselves, we don't call out the wrong guy for missing an assignment. That's a horrible feeling, by the way.

Bucs fans' expectations for this season hadn't been so high since they last reached the playoffs in 2007. They hadn't had much to be proud of since. I know McCoy hears that on social media. The fans aren't the ones suiting up on Sundays, their bodies aren't taking a beating, but they do care and have a genuine interest in what happens with the team. And players like McCoy have worked hard to win those fans back after years of apathy.

How uncomfortable that must have been for New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning, a two-time Super Bowl MVP, to stand there talking to the media fighting back tears after then-head coach Ben McAdoo demoted him. A week later, after McAdoo and general manager Jerry Reese were fired, he was back addressing the media as their starting quarterback, fielding questions about his age, declining ability and the possibility of leaving the Giants next year. But he stood there and did it. So did Geno Smith, who was named Manning's replacement and then swiftly demoted. He also answered every question and did so like a pro.

That comes with the territory.