Happy Fourth of July, everyone. I hope you and yours have a safe and pleasant holiday weekend. While many are thinking about barbecue and freedom, I’m thinking of a different type of fireworks – the ones that Jameis Winston and the boys will start throwing in a few weeks.
We’ve all been hearing the buzz. The excitement for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers is at a fever pitch. This isn’t just a local thing. NFL Network, ESPN, even some political guy guest writing on Peter King’s MMQB are all singing the praises of your Buccos.
The national coverage is stunning (sorry Tom Jones) and a little oft-putting for Bucs fans. We’re not used to seeing our team being referred to like this. At least not recently. In just a few short weeks, Hard Knocks comes calling as we see the 2017 Buccaneers are built to be a playoff contender. It’s not that we don’t like it. We just wonder how real it is.
It’s different than it was in 2007 when fans, spoiled by the Super Bowl championship, decided they wouldn’t show up for a playoff game because the Bucs won the division ONLY at 9-7. The Bucs lost to the Giants that day and haven’t been back since. That was a decade ago. It really is hard to believe it’s been that long. Now, Bucs fans have been burned so many times you wonder if you really can believe what everyone is saying? The first thing Lovie Smith said when he arrived at Tampa Bay is he was going to bring the Bucs back to relevancy. Smith is long gone, but his vision has been realized. The Bucs are relevant, but do they deserve it? Is Tampa Bay’s rise #Fakenews?
I’ve been re-watching the 2016 season, just completing the victory at home over New Orleans. We all point to the 6-2 record at the end of the season and say this is what when it all turned around. The victory over Kansas City followed by the butt kicking of the Seattle Seahawks was a fantastic thing to see. It reminded you of the good ole days of Bucball. However, something stuck with me a little bit during the streak. The Bucs had some fortunate circumstances that helped them along the way.
- Kansas City being without Pro Bowl corner Marcus Peters and league sack leader Dee Ford definitely hurt their ability to control Mike Evans. Alex Smith made an uncharacteristic throwing error in the red zone or the Bucs could have been trailing in the final moments.
- Seattle came to Tampa without all-world safety Earl Thomas. Despite those to handicaps for their opponents, the Bucs offense scored under 20 in both games.
- The Bucs had to rally from behind to beat San Diego, again benefited by a few timely turnovers.
- The Saints dropped not one, not two, but three Drew Brees touchdown passes, while the Bucs offense, playing the 28th ranked scoring defense in the league managed 16 points in their 16-11 victory.
- When the chips were on the line, Tampa Bay got smacked around by Dallas and then completely screwed the pooch in New Orleans.
- Carolina went for two to beat the Bucs in the final game of the season and failed.
Was the 6-2 run a mirage?
Well, the Bucs approached it as such. The last time the Bucs were “on the cusp”, they sat on the laurels, doing nothing more than adding a punter in the off-season. This year, the Bucs went after it – signing Desean Jackson and Chris Baker then have a bit more fortune with O.J. Howard falling right into their laps.
One of the things that amazed me re-watching this season was how in the heck Winston got to 4,000 yds and 28 touchdown passes throwing to receivers like Freddie Martino and Josh Huff. No disrespect to those two players, who had some nice moments, but they aren’t the first names you think of when you talk weapons. Winston would rely on Cam Brate, who was an undrafted free agent in 2015 and Mike Evans, the only elite player (other than Jameis himself) the Bucs had. Charles Simms was hurt most of the year. Martin was not himself (injured and then suspended). Winston’s top running backs were Peyton Barber and Jacquizz Rodgers. I like Rodgers, but he wasn’t even on a roster opening day in 2016 and Barber was a practice squad player.
Despite those deficiencies, Winston found a way. So the automatic deduction is, if he could do that with little talent around him, imagine what he can do with Jackson, Howard and 3rd round pick Chris Godwin, who won the Kenny Bell award for most outstanding player of OTAs.
The first thing that needs to be fixed is Jameis himself. Winston’s biggest problem is never giving up on a play. It gets him needlessly hit and puts the ball in jeopardy, as it did against Dallas.
I know folks are still ringing their hands about the offensive line but to be honest, other than being penalty magnets, they weren’t all that bad (Gosder Cherilus vs. Dallas withstanding). The holes were there for Martin – he didn’t see them. The protection was usually there for Winston, a lot of times he held the ball way too long than he needed to and then it became a fire drill. Part of that is the receivers failing to get open – which hopefully won’t be a problem with the new weapons.
Then you add to the fact that the Bucs were slow as molasses on offense. When your fastest receiver is Mike Evans, you have a speed problem. Sure Martino and Huff could run, but they also struggled at getting off the line of scrimmage, making them slow. Jackson, a savvy vet, won’t have that problem and defenses will need to respect his speed.
During the off-season, I watched some of D-Jax’s work with the Redskins and folks, it’s not necessarily what he can do, it’s his impact. With defenses forced to respect D-Jax, there were more running lanes for the Washington running backs. Other receivers like Pierre Garcon and Jamison Crowder would get single coverage and would have plenty of opportunities to get open. Defenses would role their safeties over the top, keeping them out of the box.
In the 15 games he played, Washington’s offense scored 23 or more points in 11 of them.
If the Bucs can get to the regular season with Winston, Martin, Evans and Desean Jackson all healthy and raring to go – this offense will be handful for anyone who faces them.
Defensively is really where the 6-2 record speaks strongly for the Bucs resurgence. For most of the season, the Bucs were terrible against the pass and made up for it by being horrible against the run. When the Los Angeles Rams run up 37 points on you, you have to wonder what the heck you’re doing on defense.
Something happened after the mini-bye week, though. After the Raiders and Falcons combined for 73 points on Tampa Bay, the Bucs defenders began pointing the finger inward and something changed. From that moment on, the Bucs defense played outstanding football down the stretch (except in Dallas and at New Orleans). The Bucs defense gave up just 17.1 points per game during the second half of the season. After forcing just 11 turnovers in the first half of the season, Tampa Bay forced 18, including several in the fourth quarter of games.
Now I haven’t rewatched Dallas and the second New Orleans game yet, so it’s not fresh in my mind. I do remember the Bucs defense struggling mightily against the run, which is likely why they signed Redskins DT Chris Baker and drafted the behemoth tackle Stevie Tu’ikolovatu.
They also added to their safety depth, drafting Justin Evans in the second round and signing former Cowboys safety J.J. Wilcox. Retaining defensive coordinator Mike Smith is probably the biggest reason to be optimistic about the Bucs prospects this season – because even if Jameis struggles to get on the same page with his new arsenal of weapons, the defense should keep them in the ballgame.
Continuity, an additional infusion of talent and a division that is slowly coming back to them are all reasons to be very excited.
Can the Bucs actually make the leap? There was a similar buzz about the Raiders last year and they indeed made that jump to the playoffs.
Is it finally our turn? Of course, Tampa Bay needs a little help from the football gods to keep their key players healthy. An injury to Winston would be devastating to this franchise (as it would for most teams that have franchise quarterbacks). Evans or Jackson going down for a length of time would put the offense back where it was last season.
The Bucs have added to their depth, which is crucial to sustaining your progress as injuries will inevitably occur. If Tampa Bay can stay healthy where they need to, I do believe Tampa Bay will challenge for the NFC South crown and return to the playoffs this season. Drink up me hearties, yo ho.