If the Buccaneers have a human piñata, a player their fans love to bash more than any other until they knock the stuffing out of him, it’s sixth-year safety Chris Conte.
For reasons that aren’t totally clear and may often be unfounded, Conte takes a beating so badly you’d think he was the reincarnation of former Tampa Bay safety-turned WWE wrestler Sabby Piscatelli.
You really have to wonder, though, where the Bucs would be right now were it not for Conte?
Conte’s critics might go so far as to say they’d be unbeaten or close to it and atop the entire NFC instead of tied for first in the NFC South with Atlanta, but objective observers know better.
Objective observers know that the Bucs probably wouldn’t even be tied for first in the NFC South or in a position to post their first winning season since 2010 were it not for Conte.
The reason is that without Conte, the Bucs probably wouldn’t have beaten the Falcons on opening day and they probably wouldn’t have beaten the Chiefs in Kansas City in Week 11.
Conte was as responsible for those two victories as anyone else on the Bucs squad because he made a pair of game-saving tackles in the first and had a game-saving pick in the second.
All of which brings us to this week’s enormous game against the Cowboys in Dallas, where Conte will likely return to the lineup after missing the previous two games with a chest injury.
The question that has to be answered, of course, is what do the Bucs do with Conte? Do they start him just as they did for the first 11 games of the season or do they bring him in off the bench?
There’s no easy answer, because in Conte’s absence, fellow safety Keith Tandy took over the role of savior by picking off game-saving passes late in the fourth quarter of each of the Bucs last two victories.
That has left the Bucs in a bit of a quandary, the roots of which are buried in that old sports belief that a starting caliber player should not lose his job due to injury.
Whether his legion of critics want to admit it or not, Conte was playing some pretty good football when he went down, good enough to warrant an immediate return to the lineup.
The problem (and yes, it’s a good one) is that Tandy, as evidenced by his two game-saving picks the past two weeks, has been playing some pretty good football, too.
So what do you do? Do you start Conte and hope he can pick up where he left off or do you go with the hot hand, start Tandy and bring Conte in off the bench if Tandy struggles?
As Bucs coach Dirk Koetter likes to say, there’s a depth chart for a reason, a pecking order for plays that the players more or less establish on their own with their play.
That would suggest Conte will indeed return as the starter. But is that really what’s best for the Bucs right now, given their chances of reaching the playoffs for the first time in eight years?
It’s Bucs coach Dirk Koetter’s call and he said Wednesday it’s an easy call but he seemed to go out of his way not to say which way that call will go.
“I don’t think you can ever have too many good football players,’’ Koetter said. “I haven’t been on that team yet that had too many. So, when we get too many players to figure out how to play them, then we’ll have real problems. But we don’t have real problems right now, that’s a good situation to have.”