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The difference between having a bad year, and being a bad player

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Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have a number of very good players on their roster: Jameis Winston, Doug Martin, Lavonte David, Mike Evans and Gerald McCoy. Players who have or will make it to Pro Bowls. Players who would be very good players and obvious starters on almost any NFL team. But this season, for some reason, fans have taken to trying to take down some of those players.

Those takedowns vary in strength and offensiveness. From "we need to cut Mike Evans" to "Gerald McCoy is very good, just not great," there's a sudden hesitance to celebrate the quality of really any player not named Winston or Martin. It's really kind of baffling, as if some fans feel the need to cut ties with the players who represented the few bright spots when the Bucs weren't winning.

If he's a great player, why isn't he having a great year? As if great players never have down years, never get injured, never have games in which they aren't overly visible, never have seasons in which they make too many mistakes. They do, of course, but no one watches every game of every team equally intently -- they consume players who are not on their team in the form of highlight-reel plays. The effect, of course, is that every time they see great players on other teams, those great players are doing great things.

Given the flak Gerald McCoy's gotten this year for supposedly disappearing and not putting up statistics, contrasted with Aaron Donald, you'd be amazed that to discover that Donald himself has "just" 11 sacks on the year and has been held without a sack six times this year, with three of those games coming with one or no solo tackles. How many games this year has McCoy been held without a sack? Six, just as many as Donald despite being limited by a torn rotator cuff and a broken hand.

Here's another statistic: Gerald McCoy has 7.5 sacks this year. Warren Sapp had 7.5 or fewer sacks in five of his nine years in Tampa, and managed 7.5 in the team's Super Bowl season. Now obviously, sacks don't represent the whole of a defensive tackle's input, and McCoy has certainly not been as good this season as he has been in previous years -- mostly because of those injuries -- but

Projecting great players into the future

Arguing about whether a player is great, or good or some other qualifier is all well and good, it doesn't really impact the team. Whether or not you want to call Mike Evans or Gerald McCoy or Lavonte David or anyone else "great" is a bit of an esoteric question, hinging on how you want to define "great" and so many undefinable characteristics that you'll always have a lot of disagreement. Especially when you're talking about a single season.

You can easily argue that Gerald McCoy, Mike Evans and Lavonte David have had down years, and have had their struggles this season. I think many of these criticism go a little too far, but at least they're fair arguments to be had. Where those criticism go off the rails, though, is when they conflate how those players have performed this year with how they have and will always perform. A "bad year" becomes a "bad player" becomes "someone who must be replaced."

Suddenly, McCoy is now "injury-prone" (he missed all of four games since 2012 and hasn't played injured before 2015), or he's overpaid, or he's just plain bad. Suddenly, Mike Evans can't catch any balls, despite drops not having been a problem prior to this season, and despite him still regularly making amazing catches. Suddenly, folks forget about past performance and the promise of their physical talent.

Since Gerald McCoy entered the league in 2010, there have been exactly three defensive tackles who have arguably been better: Geno Atkins and Aaron Donald, the former ironically having dealt with injury issues limiting his effectiveness, too. Since Mike Evans entered the league last year, three receivers entering the NFL have arguably been better: Odell Beckham Jr., Allen Robinson and Amari Cooper. Since entering the NFL in 2012, one 4-3 linebacker has arguably been better than Lavonte David: Luke Kuechly.

Obviously, finding better players is a very, very difficult thing to do. If it wasn't, every team in the NFL would be starting their own versions of these players -- and yet look at NFL rosters, and you'll find that the Bucs' players are near the top of their position groups in the NFL.

And then there's the more important point of looking forward. That these players are having down years for various reasons, does not mean that they will continue to do so in the future. In fact, there's no real reason to believe that Gerald McCoy will tear his rotator cuff or break his hand next year, or that Lavonte David will have a slow start to the season, or that Mike Evans won't fix his drop issues (as he has over the past month).

Dislike their play this year all you want, but don't make the mistake of thinking that will last indefinitely, that these players now cannot be relied upon. They are key cogs in the team the Bucs are building. And that team needs just a few more pieces to finally be a contender. Next year.

The good thing is that the Bucs don't make decision based on irate fans. Or at least I hope they don't.