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DLT’s Diatribes - On the Cusp

NFL: Carolina Panthers at Tampa Bay Buccaneers Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

For the ninth consecutive season, your Tampa Bay Buccaneers will be just like the rest of us, watching the playoffs on television. However, this season significant progress was made in getting the Bucs back into the Super Bowl tournament.

As customary for the last Diatribes of the season, we’ll focus on the season as a whole rather than yesterday’s season finale.

  1. I will say this about Sunday’s snoozefest, the Bucs and Panthers certainly bring the worst out of each other don’t they? I’ve seen plenty of Panther games this season, Cam has been bad, but man, I have to struggle to remember seeing him THAT bad. And we’ve all seen Bad Jameis this season, but with the exception of one drive, Winston was absolutely horrible on Sunday. Then there was the kicking game - what in the world was THAT?

Of course, the one drive was all the Bucs needed and it came in the fourth quarter of a game it seemed neither team were fully vested in winning.

The Bucs defense played another terrific game, as they have during this recent hot run. Panthers defense also played well. It was an old fashioned NFC South defensive battle and the Bucs defense managed to make one more play than the Panthers.

By the way, Ron Rivera, the only thing bush league about showing Thomas Davis’ cheap shot on Russell Shepard was the play itself. Yes, it’s a legal play. It’s still a cheap shot. Then again, we expect nothing less from the Panthers.

2. Well, it played out perfectly for the Bucs, just I had outlined in the DLT’s Wild and Crazy Playoff Scenarios in recent weeks. Only, the Bucs failed to hold up their end of the bargain, allowing the Saints to take the playoffs away from them. Of course, that Saints game wasn’t the only one the Bucs will look back on a shake their heads.

They got taken to the woodshed by a Cardinals team that ended up 7-8-1. The Rams. They gave up 37 to a Rams team that would get over 21 points once the rest of the season. It would be one of the Rams four victories on the season.

They let rookie Paxton Lynch throw all over them (remember, they knocked out Trevor Simian early in the game), losing to a Broncos team that finished 8-8.

They had fourth and 2 against Oakland and forced an incomplete pass to wrap up the game...but a defensive holding call gave the Raiders new life, they would tie the game and outlast the Bucs in overtime (where the offense had numerous chances to win it but failed).

They had the football, down by six in Dallas with a chance to win the game and the offensive line collapsed against a no-name college free agent edge rusher.

Of course, despite how terribly they played in New Orleans, they had pulled within a score but the defense couldn’t stop the Saints running game and get the ball back.

If any of those scenarios played out in the Bucs favor, Tampa Bay is preparing to head to Seattle to face a Seahawks team they had already beaten once this season. But hey, that’s football. That’s the difference between a playoff team and a 9-7 team.

The Bucs weren’t quite ready yet. Almost, but not yet.

3. Still, it was some season wasn’t it? It’s been a long time since the Bucs could be a team to be excited about with signature victories. Of the 12 playoff participants, the Bucs played 5 and notched victories against three of them, including wins against two teams with first round byes, beating them in their own stadiums.

That’s pretty impressive.

After a tough 3-5 start to the season, the Bucs dove into the meat of their schedule and inexplicably finished an amazing 6-2. This was without several key contributors who were lost to injury, Jameis playing behind a suspect line, with street free agents at wide out and absolutely no running game.

This was playing Dallas, Seattle and Kansas City, a trip to the west coast plus the Saints twice and Carolina, the defending NFC Champions.

So many times they were told they couldn’t do it, yet proved their critics wrong.

While its crushing to see teams the Bucs beat and/or dominated playing in the post season instead of them, they did a lot this season to change perceptions. Not only Nationally, but locally.

Now it’s up to Jason Licht to make the right choices in the coming months to put the Bucs over the hump and have Tampa Bay take the next step everyone will be expecting them to take.

4. Jameis Winston is a franchise quarterback. Yes, he makes you pull out your hair with some of the things he does, but he is something special to watch. Even at his worst, he still gives you something. Considering the horrible history of quarterbacks for the Buccaneers, Tampa Bay fans have grown accustom to tearing down the QB.

It’s been no different for Jameis, who has his detractors. He’s not a finished product by any stretch of the imagination, but he’s already a very good QB in this league.

Here’s the thing - he’s 22, folks. Well, he turns 23 on Friday. He’s younger than Dak Prescott. Think about that for a moment. He should be finishing out his senior year at Florida State.

Instead, he’s leading the Bucs to their first winning season in 6 years.

He’s becoming the first quarterback in NFL history to throw for 4,000 yards in his first two seasons. Think about that for a moment, folks. All the great QBs in the 96 year history of this league. Hall of Famers like Joe Montana, Peyton Manning, Dan Marino, Brett Favre. Gunslingers today like Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Matt Stafford and Luck.

None of them accomplished what Jameis did his first two seasons in the league. And he’s 23.

Winston has already begun re-writing the Bucs’ record book, too. Most Touchdown passes in a season (28), most yards in a single season (4,090).

He became only the 5th QB in NFL history to throw 50 touchdowns in his first two seasons.

And he’s 23. Imagine when he figures out what the hell he’s doing and gets some weapons to compliment Mike Evans.

5. There are six head coaching openings in the NFL (at the time of this writing) and it would be a mild surprise if someone the pedigree of Bucs’ defensive coordinator Mike Smith isn’t chosen to fill one of them.

It took about half a season, but once the defense figured out what their defensive coordinator wanted from them, they were a solid unit. Certainly, there’s pieces still needed. Thankfully a couple answers were found, too.

The Bucs could use a safety to tandem with the Tandy man, who has been relegated to special teams and backup duties his entire career but finally showed the Bucs and the rest of the league just what he is capable of doing.

They could always use another pass rusher and a replacement for Daryl Smith, who did a good job of helping Mike Smith teach the defense (but not much else).

They also need a run stuffer in the middle to team with Gerald McCoy. The Bucs run defense was a bit too leaky this season, even in the hot run and that’s got to be addressed.

6. It’s funny, coming into the season, the one thing we weren’t worried about was the Bucs’ top ten offense. Then Vincent Jackson, Charles Sims and Doug Martin went down, ASJ went insane and Jameis had college free agents in the backfield and receiving passes.

Apparently losing Logan Mankins was much more an impact than we anticipated, as the run game was non-existent with or without Martin. For an offense that predicates everything off of its running game, that’s not good.

I know everyone has focused on the tackles (especially after the Dallas game), but I think the Bucs could do some work at Center. Either in the draft or free agency, they need someone to unseat Joe Hawley. Look, we all love the Beard but as a center, he’s marginal at best. Look at what Alex Mack has done for the Falcons offense, who middled around in 2015 a lot like the Bucs did this year. Add Mack, then suddenly the rest of the line gets a smidge better and no one can stop Atlanta’s offense.

With Vincent Jackson obviously riding off into the sunset, the Bucs need a reliable #2 (or a 1B) to team with Mike Evans. They also need a speed receiver - someone Jameis can’t overthrow. A burner like Tyreek Hill (preferably without the spousal abuse), Tyler Lockett or Brandin Cooks. A playmaker that can also help the Bucs abysmal return game.

Of course, the Bucs do need a replacement for Martin. Even if Martin remains on the roster after Week Four, he can’t be counted on to be the man anymore. Charles Sims can’t be counted on to stay healthy, either and he already proved he can’t carry the mail.

Quizz Rodgers played well when provided the opportunity but is best in smaller doses.

With the running game being such a crucial component for the Bucs, they need their Zeke Elliot. Of course, we all have seen the greatness of Dalvin Cook. Unfortunately, unless the Bucs move up in the draft, I think he will be long gone by the time the Bucs pick.

LSU’s Leonard Fournette will likely be a top ten pick as well. I am enamored with Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey, a dynamic playmaker in both the running and passing game. He may be there when Tampa Bay picks and if he is, I’d love to see him in Pewter.

Keep an eye out for Draft Phantom’s awesome analysis as we march closer to the draft in April.

7. After being burned so many times, many Bucs fans subscribe to the adage of “The off-season champion is never the Super Bowl champion”. Well, this off-season’s champions, the New York Giants, jumped from consecutive 6-10 seasons to 11-5 and the number five seed in the playoffs. The Giants spent a ton of money on their defense and moved from 16th to 12th in points allowed. Their defense in the second half of the season is the reason the Giants are in the playoffs.

So, it’s not really about spending on top free agents or waiting until the second tier - it’s finding the right guys that fit your system.

The draft should always be where you build your core...but free agency isn’t a pariah, in fact, it’s what got the Bucs over the hump and their first Super Bowl victory.

The good news is thanks to the Bucs’ strides this season, Tampa Bay is a desirable place to play again. The team is a winner, has some national cache and has a dynamic young QB that players gravitate to. Add no state income tax, a ton of cap space and a beautiful place to bring up your family - Tampa Bay should be attractive to any top free agent.

Now, will the Glazers give Jason Licht the go ahead to chase the Eric Berrys, Desean Jacksons and Alshon Jeffries of free agency? We’ll see. Licht had a good year with free agency (JR Sweezy, the exception). Brent Grimes got off to a slow start but became the playmaker we expected by season’s end. Robert Ayers was a leader and impact force and Bryan Anger had a Pro Bowl season at Punter.

Licht deserves a shot with a fat pocketbook and a winning team.

8. Tampa Bay rookie head coach Dirk Koetter has the second highest winning percentage of any coach in Bucs history. His .536 winning percentage (9-7) edges Chucky’s 57-55 .508. He’s behind only Tony Dungy’s .563 (54-42). Not a bad start for a guy many thought would be a bad hire for the Bucs.

Koetter had his growing pains this season and he wasn’t able to maintain the offense’s upward trajectory (we’ve already talked about why), but when other coaches would have folded after a 3-5 start, Koetter got his team back on track and finished 6-2 against one of the most formidable remaining schedules in the NFL.

Better yet, he deems this season as a failure, as does his quarterback. Their goal wasn’t to have a winning season or just be relevant. It was to win the Super Bowl. Perhaps a bit unrealistic considering where the team is in their progression - but that was the goal and they failed.

So Licht and Koetter will work on that goal again in the coming year.

I love Koetter’s no bullspit style. I think the players do, too. He’s a good coach, the best we’ve had in a while and I’m glad he’s here in Tampa Bay.

9. The Bucs 2017 schedule won’t be much easier than this year’s. Including the Falcons, four playoff teams come into Raymond James Stadium in 2017, while the Bucs will face three other playoff teams on the road (including a trip to Green Bay).

Of course, as we well know from both Super Bowl participants missing the playoffs in 2016, a lot can change between now and kickoff in September. The playoff field seems to change over at least 50 percent every year.

It will be interesting to see what happens in New Orleans. Will this be the year Sean Payton finally moves on - and if so - will Drew Brees step away?

In Atlanta, you’d have to expect Kyle Shannahan to get a gig somewhere - the Falcons offense was just too good and Matt Ryan’s MVP-level season gives an franchise with a young QB like the Rams or an old Lion like the Chargers and Phillip Rivers some interest.

If Shannahan does move on, how does that effect Ryan and the Falcons offense? Will Quinn strive to make Atlanta a running team and defensive team?

Then there’s Carolina and Cam. Newton says he has a love/hate relationship with football right now and wants to get away from the game for a little while. After the horrible season he put up, you’d rather hear he was rededicated himself to the game of football and getting rid of the distractions rather than going away and trying to find more. This is a critical time for Newton, who can rise back to prominence like a Phoenix or crash and burn out.

Something’s very odd there in Carolina.

10. DLT’s Game Tweet of the Week.

Finally, thank you all for reading this season. This one has been one heck of a ride. I feel excited about the Bucs’ future. I think Jameis is absolutely right, Tampa Bay in on the cusp of making the playoffs the new normal.