There's been some bad years in Tampa Bay but few would rival the dreck we saw in 2014. The stench of any 2-14 season follows most teams but does it mean the Bucs have no hope this season?
"This is a growing year," Bucs owner Bryan Glazer told reporters, "With a rookie quarterback, everybody in this community is really excited about that, the team is excited about that, and with Jameis, we're going to put it on his shoulders and see how he goes. But it's one step at a time. We're not trying to do it all at once here."
In other words, the owner doesn't expect much from them this year. Coach Lovie Smith said what he must say, that the Bucs goal is to win week one, progress to winning the division and then the Super Bowl.
Most chuckled at the notion of the Buccaneers getting anywhere near Super Bowl 50 without a ticket.
The Tampa Bay Times' Tom Jones went a step further saying, "A coach has to say such things, but there is no way this team is winning a Super Bowl. Winning the division seems ridiculous. The more realistic goal is to show improvement, to show that this team is heading in the right direction. That might mean four wins. It might mean six. Maybe eight. How many games the Bucs win and lose might not be as important as how they win and lose them. They just need to show that they are getting better."
I think many are selling this football team a little short. There are trends in the NFL and with the Bucs themselves that open doors for Tampa Bay that most 2-14 teams wouldn't have.
The last three teams with the first overall pick had winning seasons the following year. Two made the playoffs. Last season the Houston Texans went from 2-14 to 9-7 despite having no quarterback and losing 1st overall pick JaDeveon Clowney for the season with an injury.
In 2013, the Kansas City Chiefs, under new coach Andy Reid, jumped from 2-14 to 11-5 and a wild card berth.
In 2012, after a 2-14 season, Indianapolis drafted Andrew Luck and they won the AFC South with an 11-5 record.
Each of these teams had significant regime changes to go along with their top draft pick. Obviously, Lovie Smith was one of those rare coaches to survive a season as bad as 2-14. Maybe that's because during his coaching career, Lovie has never had back-to-back losing seasons. Prior to this past year, Lovie's worst season as a head coach was his first with the Bears. Chicago went 5-11 losing 6 of their last 7 games in the process.
Like the Bucs Greg Schiano (4-12 in his last year with the Bucs), this was two games worse than his predecessor, Dick Jauron, who finished 7-9 the previous season.
The Bears started the next season 1-3 and things looked pretty bleak until suddenly Chicago caught fire, winning eight straight games and finishing the season 11-5, the complete reverse of the previous season.
In his first season, Chicago was dead last in offense, 21st on defense. In year 2, their offense didn't improve much but the defense rocketed to 2nd in yards, 1st in points allowed.
Lovie had losing seasons in 2007 (7-9) and 2009 (7-9) but saw his teams bounce back for winning years the following seasons.
So big jumps are common for the team with the first overall pick and under Lovie Smith. Those trends are all well and good, but why else should Buc fans be excited?
The Jameis Factor
Yes, Jameis Winston is a rookie and its tough to expect a rookie QB to lead a team bad enough to pick him first overall to the playoffs the next year. Jameis is a bit different though. In his first game as red shirt freshman, in front of a National Television audience the youngster stepped to the stage and threw for 356 yds and 4 touchdowns. He would go on to lead the Noles to their first National Championship in 14 years. No moment is too big for him.
As you would expect, coaches and teammates are raving about his football IQ and work ethic. Same things were said about Josh Freeman before he was destroyed by his demons (and Greg Schiano). Yet, something truly does seem different about Winston, doesn't it Buc fans? Could it be, after 39 years of Buccaneer football Tampa Bay may actually have a quarterback that can get to a second contract?
Well, let's let him complete his first regular season pass before going there. Still, if Jameis is what the Bucs believe he is, then his presence alone can lift this team. RG III, before he was broken by Mike Shanahan, took the Washington franchise from 5-11 to 10-6 and a playoff berth in his rookie season. Andy Dalton took the Bengals from 4-12 to 9-7 in his rookie season. Joe Flacco took the Ravens from 5-11 to 11-5 in his rookie year. We already mentioned Luck.
Yes, Jameis will have his struggles. He'll have his four interception days. Andrew Luck threw 18 interceptions his rookie year. But like Brett Favre before him, he won't let it phase him and he'll make that "Holy Cow" play that will make the "WTF" throws worth it.
Year 2 of the Tampa Two
Lovie and Jason Licht learned from their mistakes last year and brought in free agents that already knew the Tampa Two. Meanwhile, the holdovers on the Bucs defense now know what is expected of them. Historically, year two of the Tampa Two sees a huge jump.
How often did we hear about how historically bad the Dallas Cowboys defense was going to be heading into the 2014 season? Experts thought records of woe would be set.
Instead, Dallas' Tampa Two defense rose from dead last in 2013 to 19th, 15th in scoring defense.
The Bucs actually played well defensively down the stretch of last season.
Over the last 10 games of the season, the Tampa Bay defense averaged giving up 336.6 yards per game. Had the Bucs sustained that all 16 games, they would have finished 8th in the NFL on defense. Tampa Bay also surrendered just 20.6 pts per game over the last 10 games. Had they maintained that all season, they would have been 9th in the league.
An Offensive Coordinator who can hide team deficiencies
Yes, the offensive line was epically bad last year and frankly, any offensive line that opens training camp with Garrett Gilkey as a starter at RG has a right to be concerned. But the importance of the addition of Dirk Koetter simply cannot be understated. The Falcons were so bereft of talent on their offensive line last season, they actually started a blocking tight end at tackle. Yet Atlanta still managed to have the 8th best offense in the NFL, 5th in passing.
Koetter adjusted his playbook to his personnel and helped his woeful line. The thing with Koetter is, that's his m.o. He gets the best out of what he has. So yes, indeed, the Bucs may be starting two rookies on the offensive line and that's obviously going to be a big concern when the franchise rests on the shoulders of their newly minted franchise QB.
If Jameis isn't given time, he can't make plays or has to feel rushed. But unlike Marcus Arroyo, who continued with deep ball throws, 5-to-7 step drops and rarely used screens, the slot/TE or multiple formations to slow down the rush, Koetter will be able to adjust his gameplan to get the ball out of Winston's hands quicker.
It also helps that Logan Mankins is over his shock at being traded to Tampa Bay and has come in with a new kick butt attitude.
Doug Martin is in the best shape of his Pro career
Apparently, the Bucs not picking up his option was a wake up call for the Dougernaut, who hasn't been the same since he blazed onto the scene his rookie year. Dealing with injuries the last few seasons had robbed Martin of his explosiveness and for some reason his vision. Too many times we saw Martin duck his head and try to plow through the line, missing holes he could squirt through. Toward the end of the season, we saw some of that start to return to Martin's game. A run of 63 and 45 yards in two of his last three games showed that Martin could still break a big one.
Now he's in the best shape of his life, feeling faster and more confident. If the Buccaneers can get any semblance of a running game to help Winston, Tampa Bay's offense could be deadly.
The Weakest Schedule in the league
Did you know the Buccaneers face only one team that had a winning record in 2014 in their first eight games? In total, they only face four teams with winning record last year and only two teams that made the playoffs.
Now, of course that's all relative in the parity era bad teams become good, good teams become bad and you bet your backside that every opponent on the Bucs schedule is looking at Tampa Bay as an easy W.
But it's not a murderer's row the Bucs are facing this year. Tampa Bay has taken advantage of weak schedules before. In 2010, Raheem's group shocked the league jumping from 3-13 to a 10-6 record. In 2005, the Bucs coming off Chuckie's worst season as a head coach (until 2007 that is), improved from 5-11 to 11-5.
The NFC South
To say the Bucs are in the worst division in football is an understatement. Of course, Tampa Bay proceeded to go 0-6 against said worst division last year so that's not saying much - but still, the Bucs find themselves in the suprising position of not having far to go to be able to compete in the NFC South.
Can Carolina win the division for a third straight year? They still haven't given Cam any weapons on offense. Sure they spent an early pick on Devin Funchess but what is he? He's too slow to be a receiver but not big enough to be a tight end. The loss of DeAngelo Williams takes a bit from their running game. Carolina's defense is stoudt, not missing Greg Hardy last season and they added a little more thump to their elite LB core with rookie Shaq Thompson (who may actually end up at safety). However, they will be relying on youngsters and the ageless Charles Tillman in the backend.
Carolina's defense will continue to make them a threat but lack of parts on offense puts it all on Cam, who is starting to show signs of the wear-and-tear that all mobile quarterbacks endure.
New Orleans is feeling the effects of cap hell and continue to have to shed talent year after year. The thing is, they can't seem to help themselves. With one of the worst defenses in the league, they decide it'd be a great idea to give CJ Spiller a monster contract. Why? Who the heck knows. Maybe they want to beat everyone 35-30. But can they still put up those numbers? Buc killer Jimmy Graham is gone, as is Kenny Stills, Pierre Thomas, G Ben Grubbs, Curtis Lofton, Patrick Robinson, Junior Gallette...the list just keeps going, folks. Add to that aging Drew Brees could very well be playing his last season in New Orleans (thanks to his huge cap number in 2016) and Marcus Colston is another year closer to retirement...then there's that defense. Which despite spending most of their draft on that side of the football got weaker, not better with the veteran departures. Do they have one last run left in them?
Atlanta has a new coaching staff and with any new regime there's a massive amount of turnover. Gone are RB Steven Jackson, RB Jacquizz Rodgers, WR Harry Douglas, TE Bear Pascoe, OT Sam Baker, G Justin Blalock, DT Corey Peters, OLB Sean Weatherspoon and others. Their biggest off-season addition on defense was probably former Buc Adrian Clayborn.
Atlanta's offensive line got worse, not better and they didn't address it in free agency or the draft (unles you count OT Tyler Polumbus - I don't). They're hoping Clemson product Vic Beasley can bring the pass rush and not be a bust like so many other former Clemson defensive ends but the rest of their defense is simply in shambles.
Matt Ryan remains one of the best quarterbacks in the division (maybe THE best) but he can't do it alone. Plus, Dirk Koetter is no longer his offensive coordinator.
The Bucs aren't lacking talent, they lack depth
Tampa Bay has some of the most dynamic players in the NFC South, with Mike Evans, Austin Sefarian Jenkins, Logan Mankins and Vincent Jackson leading the way on offense and Lavonte David, Alterraun Verner and Gerald McCoy on defense. They've added to their talent pool this off-season with George Johnson, Henry Melton, Bruce Carter and the rookies (Jameis, Marpet, Smith and Kenny Bell).
Depth remains a concern on the offensive line, the secondary and at defensive end. The Bucs will field a starting 22 that is capable of competing with anyone in the NFL. The question is do they have the depth to continue when a key cog goes down?
How do they make the jump?
So for the Buccaneers to become that next worst-to-first team, a few things are going to have to happen.
First and foremost, Jameis has to be good. He can't be Blaine Gabbert.
Second, Jameis has to stay healthy. He can't be Sam Bradford. Although the Bucs certainly have one of the better backup QBs in the league if something were to happen to Jameis. Still, no one but the Mike Glennon Mob (as Joe Bucs Fan calls them) wants to see Glennon starting for an extended period of time. Been there, puked that.
Third, the Bucs have to Siege Ray Jay. 10 of the 12 playoff teams had no less than 5-2-1 record on their home turf. Only Dallas and Carolina bucked the trend, finishing 4-4 respectively at home. To make the playoffs in the NFL, you have to win at home. This year at home, Tampa Bay faces only one team that had a winning record in 2014 (Dallas). They need to take advantage of that.
Fourth, they must be better in their division. Carolina took the NFC South thanks to a 4-2 record. 9 of the 12 playoff participants were 4-2 or better within division.
Fifth, they must win close games. The Bucs were a shocking 1-9 in games decided by 8 points or less. They blew more fourth quarter leads than any team in the NFL. Go 6-4 in those games and the Bucs are talking division championship in 2014 instead of trying to pick up the pieces of a disastrous season.
Finally, they need to forget 2014. There's nothing that can be done about that travesty of a season. Its done and over.
Look, I know its tough to believe again. This is a franchise that has gone 30-70 in the last 100 games. It's been 8 years since the Bucs made the playoffs. It's been 13 years since they've won a playoff game (Super Bowl XXXVII). It's A Bucs Life has been synonymous with watching a vomit inducing 3 hours of yuck each Sunday in the fall for far too long.
But as Mr. Gibbs said in Pirates of the Caribbean,"I think I feel a change in the wind, says I."
This could be the year the Bucs rise from the depths and finally become relevant again. It's time to siege the league.