Going into the 2011 season with the "Youngry" Bucs coming off a 10-6 record, I told my father, "This is the year."
Heading into the 2013 season with Pro-Bowlers Darrelle Revis and Dashon Goldson plugging up the holes in the porous secondary responsible for the 7-9 mark the year before, I insisted to my coworkers, "I’m telling you guys, this is the year."
At this point, I might just be the boy who cried wolf to my family and friends. So when training camp rolls around and I tell them, "This is the year the Buccaneers are going to make some noise," once again, they’ll probably just roll their eyes.
But everyone reading this should believe me when I say this year will be different.
This is the year the Buccaneers finally take that fruitful step forward towards NFL relevancy — I’m sure of it. No, I’m not guaranteeing playoffs or even giving a win/loss prediction, but I firmly believe by the end of the 2016 season it will become abundantly clear to fans, analysts and NFL-types alike that things are moving in the right direction in Tampa.
Perhaps the most important part of any successful team. You’ve got to have the talent if you want to be a playoff threat, and General Manager Jason Licht is assembling some serious talent.
There’s already been a ton written about the GM’s impressive four-starter draft class, and rightfully so. Not only did the Buccaneers get four starters with their first four picks, they got four players with some massive upside at hugely important positions in quarterback Jameis Winston, left tackle Donovan Smith, right guard Ali Marpet and middle linebacker Kwon Alexander.
When fans look back at the 2015 NFL draft, they’ll do so fondly, reminiscing about the weekend Tampa Bay laid the foundation for its future.
We’ve yet to see the 2016 draft class hit the field yet, but on paper it looks like another home run for Licht. Though the positions aren’t as impactful to a team’s success as the ones picked in 2015, the Buccaneers are in a position to come away with four more starters from this year’s draft in cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III, edge rusher Noah Spence, kicker Roberto Aguayo and fullback Dan Vitale.
Combine eight starters from two drafts with a pair of solid, albeit unspectacular, free agency periods and you’ve got a roster that has fewer holes than any Buccaneers team in years.
Sure, Tampa Bay could use depth in some places and a high-end starter or two — a top-end safety would go a long way and another edge rusher wouldn’t hurt — but just look at the depth and stars already on the team.
Gerald McCoy, Mike Evans, Lavonte David, Doug Martin, Robert Ayers and possibly Jameis Winston — the Buccaneers have five players that have a great chance of placing among the top 101 players in the league according to PFF.
Between bringing in VH3, Brent Grimes and Josh Robinson in one offseason, and the hopeful return to form for incumbents Alterraun Verner and Jonathan Banks, cornerbacks look a position that is legitimately five deep. The offensive line is two-deep for the first time in recent memory. The Bucs also have a quality back up quarterback, the best 1-2 running back punch in the NFL and a receiving corps that should be loaded with game experience at the bottom.
As long as the injury bug doesn’t ravage the team, the Buccaneers’ roster is one of the deepest and most talented it has been since its Super Bowl run.
It’s been a struggle to find good, consistent coaching in Tampa Bay since Jon Gruden patrolled the sidelines (and even then I’d argue the consistency of it), but it appears the Buccaneers are finally on the correct path.
The Glazers deserve a lot of credit for the gutsy move to fire Lovie Smith after a second consecutive disappointing season and hiring first-time head coach Dirk Koetter as his replacement. Not because it wasn’t the right move, it was, but because of the beating they took in the media in the immediate wake of the announcement.
Tampa Bay was referred to as Cleveland South for firing its second coach after just two years, but it would have been futile for the Buccaneers to spend another season spinning their wheels under Lovie with a defense that showed no signs of improving after falling to 26th in the league last season.
In Lovie’s place Licht has assembled a coaching staff that blends a mix of respected veterans like defensive coordinator Mike Smith, DL coach Jay Hayes and RBs coach Tim Spencer, and hungry up-and-comers, including offensive coordinator/WRs coach Todd Monken and QBs coach Mike Bajakian.
The Buccaneers have already reaped the benefit of the new and improved coaching staff off the field: the presence of Mike Smith had a lot to do with luring veteran players from winning organizations without significantly overpaying. Daryl Smith comes in from a well-run Baltimore organization and Grimes made Tampa is first choice because of his respect for Mike Smith. The Bucs also beat out a handful of interested teams to steal J.R. Sweezy away from a place he played in two Super Bowls.
More importantly than offseason rewards, Tampa’s new coaching staff, especially on the defensive side of the ball, has the chance to unlock the full potential of this team. The offense should be largely the same as last season, albeit with a few more wrinkles, with Koetter still running the show, though a more aggressive mentality driven an offensive-minded head coach — and one that appears to want to play the odds — should be a welcome change from the past two regimes.
And how long have Bucs fans watched defensive coordinators refuse to scheme their system to accentuate the talent of their best players, instead repeatedly trying to force square pegs into round holes (Greg Schiano and Darrelle Revis) or just cutting bait with anyone who didn’t fit the specified scheme (Lovie Smith and Darrelle Revis). We haven’t seen Mike Smith’s product on the field, but at least in quotes he says he wants to be "flexible" and build his defense around the talents of his players — what a novel idea.
The locker room
Another necessary ingredient to any championship team, though one that is harder to quantify, is a good locker room presence. Having established leaders in the locker room allows a team to bring in talented players with character concerns while being able to rest easy knowing the players have the ability to handle any issues in-house (a strategy made famous by New England).
But more than that, when the times get rough, it’s crucial to have a player the rest of the team can rally around. The youth and general poor play of recent Buccaneers teams has stunted the development of effective leadership. That appears to have changed in a big way.
Fans of drafting Winston last year championed the FSU star’s ability to earn the love of his teammates to the point they’d be willing to run through a wall for him, but even Winston’s most arduous supporters couldn’t have predicted just how quickly it happened in the NFL.
Gerald McCoy had been the team’s leader and the face of the franchise by default for years as the best player on the team. It took Winston less than half the season to take a stranglehold on the keys to the franchise. From the outside looking in, it appears Winston has won the hearts of the entire locker room with his passionate speeches and team-first approach — even helping make a leader out of Kwon Alexander in the process.
Aside from Winston, McCoy is still here and he doesn’t have the pressure to be the vocal guy, he can go back to the lead-by-example style he’s more comfortable with. Same with Lavonte David. The aforementioned Alexander earned the respect of his team after putting up a tremendous performance in a Week 8 victory against the Falcons two days after the death of his 17-year-old brother.
Tampa will miss Logan Mankins’ mentorship, but Vincent Jackson should have a more hands-on role if he can stay healthy, and Daryl Smith will bring a lot of experience to a young linebacking corps. When the bullets start flying, the Buccaneers know who to look to.
The single most important factor in building a consistent contender is the same reason why Bucs fans should be excited about the future of the team. I’s nearly impossible to remain a threat year-in and year-out without a franchise quarterback, and Jameis Winston has flashed the potential to become the very best in the NFL.
That’s not exaggeration. Winston could literally become the best player in the NFL, and even if there’s only a 10% chance of that happening (I think it’s significantly higher) that’s a great position to be in.
The rookie season numbers are great, even if they don’t jump off the page like they may have before Cam Newton and Andrew Luck entered the league, but it’s the traits Winston displayed in putting up those numbers that has Licht lovestruck.
Jameis is the first-in, last-out type of guy (from secondhand accounts I know this is absolutely true of his time in Tampa), putting in overtime in the film room, and since the Pro-Bowl, apparently the weight room. By all accounts leading up the the draft last year, Winston is a savant with the ability to quickly suck up and retain all things football.
None of this matters of course if the quarterback can't make the throws, and fortunately this is not an issue. Winston has a combination of arm-strength and anticipation to make any throw an OC could ask. This isn't Josh Freeman who had to see it before he could let it fly, Winston's style is infinitely more sustainable in the NFL.
Couple more mobility than scouts gave him credit for and a ridiculous will to win, the sky is the limit for the Buccaneers' young quarterback, and by extension, the Buccaneers themselves.
The first step is a successful 2016 season.
Photo credits: Jonathan Dyer-USA Today Sports, Bob Donnan-USA Today Sports, Kirby Lee-USA Today Sports