TAMPA, Fla. -- Greg Schiano arrived with a bang, ticking off Tom Coughlin in just his second game as an NFL coach and unrepentantly puffing out his chest in response.
Barring a shocking and almost inconceivable turnaround during his second season of running the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' ultra-tight pirate ship, he'll likely leave with a whimper, dashing back to college football during or after the conclusion of this miserable campaign.
With an 0-7 record in 2013 and 12 defeats in his past 13 games dating back to last November, Schiano is underperforming in an unforgiving industry, which is reason enough for the Glazer family to fire him. Yet this coaching faceplant transcends losing.
As the Bucs stew in the aftermath of a 31-13 loss to the Carolina Panthers on NFL Network's "Thursday Night Football," it's abundantly clear that Schiano and the NFL are as poor a fit as Yasiel Puig and the NLCS, on so many levels. Most glaringly, the autocratic Schiano operates with an inherent deficit of respect, both for America's preeminent sports league and for the men he's trying to lead.
And yes, you'll notice I used the word men. That's because I've spoken to enough people who've played for Schiano during his two NFL seasons to conclude that he treats his players like children, which is a major reason he has lost his locker room.
"How bad is it there? It's worse than you can imagine," says one NFL player who spent 2012 with the Bucs. "It's like being in Cuba."
Several current Bucs players describe a similarly bleak environment in which the all-powerful, unyielding Schiano spews tone-deaf platitudes while demonstrating the personal charm of "Homeland" character Nicholas Brody.
None of this is a surprise to people in NFL scouting circles, who came to dread their visits to Rutgers when Schiano was coaching there from 2001 to 2011. As I wrote last September, such encounters were, in the words of one NFC personnel executive, "pure misery."
One veteran NFL coach told me then: "It's his way or (expletive) you. He needs to back up a little bit, or he's going to have a very hard time in this league over the long haul."
This was in the wake of Schiano's edict, at the end of a Week 2 defeat to the New York Giants at MetLife Stadium, that his players blow up the line of scrimmage and try to pry the ball from Eli Manning as the quarterback executed a clock-killing kneel-down. That caused Coughlin, one of the NFL's most respected figures, to upbraid Schiano during their postgame handshake, an uncharacteristic display of public anger that was quietly cheered by coaches, scouts and front-office executives throughout the league.
Afterward, Schiano stood by his decision, telling reporters, "I don't know if that's not something that's done in the National Football League. What I do with our football team is that we fight until they tell us, 'game over.' ... We're not going to quit; that's just the way I coach and teach our players. If some people are upset about it, that's just the way it goes."
As it turned out, opposing coaches like Coughlin were hardly the only ones upset by Schiano's approach. When Schiano ordered the Bucs to pull a similar maneuver against Eli's big brother, Peyton, in the final stages of a 31-23 defeat to the Denver Broncos last December, the future Hall of Fame quarterback was not pleased.
According to Bennett, Bucs players weren't thrilled with Schiano's legal-but-dubious decree, either.
"People just really hate it when you have to dive at people's legs," Bennett says. "At the end of the day, we've got to keep going and move onto the next game and try to make a living. Some of these guys (on other teams) are our friends."
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If torpedoing kneel-down plays was Schiano's lone controversial quirk, this would hardly be cause for an internal tune-out of his leadership. So far this season, however, Schiano has compromised his standing by jettisoning his starting quarterback, Josh Freeman, under circumstances many in the locker room perceived as shady.
First, Freeman was stripped of his captaincy in a vote that some players believed was rigged. Then, in an apparent effort to defend himself against mounting criticism, Schiano publicly chastised Freeman for having missed a team photo. After benching Freeman in favor of rookie Mike Glennon, ESPN reported that the quarterback was in stage one of the NFL's drug program.
Freeman responded angrily, issuing a statement that read, "I have never tested positive for any illegal drugs or related substances." The NFL Players Association called for a joint league/union investigation to determine the source of the leaked information regarding Freeman's inclusion in the confidential program, insinuating that Schiano was responsible.
Even if we give Schiano the benefit of the doubt and exonerate him of all Freeman-related transgressions -- and chalk up the dispute to a coach's understandable decision to replace (and ultimately release) a struggling player who had become a distraction -- it's easy to see why many inside the Bucs' locker room are skeptical.
Last year, Schiano alienated many of his players and staff members with tantrums like the one I described on "NFL GameDay Morning" last month. According to a current Bucs player -- in an account corroborated by another witness -- Schiano became enraged during a practice late in the 2012 season when special teams coach Bob Ligashesky walked onto the wrong area of the practice field during a drill.
Instead of merely telling Ligashesky to watch where he walked, Schiano launched into a loud tirade and threatened to fire him if he repeated the mistake. When Ligashesky was let go following the season, it was hard not to draw a connection between the tantrum and that decision.
"I think he just wants to flex his power," Bennett says. "He has small (man's) syndrome. I still talk to guys who are there, and trust me, there's not much respect for him in that locker room."
"He gathered us before we practiced and told us that if Belichick said something to us on the field, we should listen," one current Bucs player recalls. "He said, 'Treat their coaches like they're your coaches.' We were like, 'Huh?' When we practiced together, whatever Belichick wanted, he did. It was hilarious -- here (Schiano) is, acting like Mr. Tough Guy all the time, and when Belichick wanted something, he was like, 'Yes, Bill.' "
Bennett, who laughs at the recollection, put it this way: "He's trying to be Belichick. Yeah, some people think Belichick's an (expletive), but he's a legend. When this guy acts that way, it's a whole different deal."
Now that Bennett has relocated to the Pacific Northwest, where Pete Carroll runs an unfailingly upbeat operation, the defensive end truly appreciates the difference in leadership styles.
"It's lovely here," Bennett says. "I can't even explain to people how it is here, compared to Tampa. They wouldn't believe me."
It's not surprising that a professional athlete would favor a less restrictive atmosphere. Then again, the Bucs had perhaps the league's loosest locker room under Raheem Morris, Schiano's predecessor, and it's easy to comprehend why the Glazers elected to go the other way after souring on the prior regime.
That's pretty typical in professional sports -- fire a player's coach, hire a taskmaster, and vice versa. That said, put yourself in the Glazers' shoes now, and it's hard not to start thinking about cutting your losses and searching for some middle ground.
From a branding perspective, the Bucs organization couldn't be at a much lower point. There's the losing, and Schiano's lousy reputation, and the corresponding lack of trust. And then there's the regrettable MRSA situation: Three Bucs players have come down with the scary staph infection that's resistant to many antibiotics, with one recurrence -- two-time All-Pro guard Carl Nicks, who underwent surgery on his afflicted foot last week.
Another player who contracted MRSA, kicker Lawrence Tynes, publicly bristled at the Bucs' treatment of him after he was placed on the non-football injury list.
Though it might not be fair, the enduring image from the Bucs' 31-23 defeat to the Atlanta Falcons last Sunday -- workers in hazmat suits entering the vacated visitors' locker room at the Georgia Dome -- served as a farcical metaphor for the current state of the franchise.
At this point, Tampa Bay fans have to hope the Glazers disinfect their organization and show the paying customers that the status quo is unacceptable. If the Bucs were demonstrating signs of progress under Schiano, it would be one thing, but the man hasn't won a game that meant something to his opponent since last November (the Dec. 30 triumph over the Falcons, who'd already clinched the top seed in the NFC, doesn't count).
After a stretch of relative stinginess during the Morris years, the Glazers have spent aggressively since Schiano's arrival, landing high-profile free agents like Nicks, receiver Vincent Jackson and safety Dashon Goldson, and trading for (and giving a fat contract extension to) star cornerback Darrelle Revis. General manager Mark Dominik has drafted reasonably well and supported his coach.
It's quite clear where the problem lies.
Perhaps the Glazers are hoping Schiano will sense what's coming and pull a Petrino, emulating Bobby Petrino's parachute jump back to college football in the midst of his first season as the Falcons' coach. The difference is that, while Petrino was lambasted by his players and colleagues as a gutless opportunist, Schiano's departure would be celebrated. In addition, the Glazers would be off the hook for much of the money remaining from the five-year, $15 million contract the coach signed in 2012.
Then again, as this shipwreck of a season floats on, the Glazers might not have that much patience. An embarrassing defeat to the Panthers on national television and an ensuing nine-day break could force the issue as early as Friday. Butch Davis, who coached the Browns to the playoffs in 2002, is a "special assistant" to Schiano and would make a logical interim replacement.
Schiano, not unpredictably, is putting a positive spin on his predicament. "We just need to go out there and play Buccaneer football," the embattled coach said on NFL Network on Wednesday. "Take care of the ball, play penalty-free football. When we do that, we're a good football team. We'll win plenty of games. Hopefully that starts Thursday night."