It’s mid-August. In a normal year, that means one thing: PRESEASON FOOTBALL!
Unfortunately, 2020 hasn’t been a normal year—not in the slightest, really. So, in an attempt to adjust to the new normal—and in hopes of pulling off a football season amid a pandemic—the NFL has canceled all preseason games for 2020. That means, instead of seeing the new-look Buccaneers in action Friday night against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the preseason opener, our first chance to see the team on the field will be Sunday, Sept. 13 when it hits the road to take on the New Orleans Saints.
As much as a typical preseason seems to drag, not having one this year is tough for a lot of reasons. On the player/coach/front office level, it means all of the game conditioning, position battles, playbook installments and evaluation has to be done in what is a different-looking training camp. And on the fan/media level, it means we have to wait longer to watch live football.
But let’s all take a break from reality for a bit, shall we? If things were normal, we’d surely have some sort of breakdown of “What to Watch For” in the Bucs’ preseason opener. So, in the absence of an actual game to talk about, let’s say Tampa Bay hypothetically was playing an exhibition in Pittsburgh this weekend. What would we have watched for? Let’s break it down:
1. Some Significant Debuts?
The first week of the preseason typically means very few snaps for the first-teamers, especially when it comes to the veteran guys. And for guys like Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski and LeSean McCoy, the first week of the preseason usually means one series or no snaps at all. They just don’t need to risk the possibility of picking up any kind of injury in a meaningless game. Well, that’s the case in a normal year, at least. In 2020, with all three guys joining a new team, maybe we would’ve seen them suit up and play a series or two in Pittsburgh.
Brady may have benefited from getting a small dose of action so that he could keep adjusting to the Bruce Arians/Byron Leftwich offense and start getting some in-game reps with his new receivers. Gronkowski could have probably used a few snaps of live football after taking the 2019 season off. And McCoy, perhaps to a lesser extent, might have been able to start getting used to being a Buc after signing with the team so late in the offseason. It wouldn’t have been much—if anything at all—but perhaps this would have been our first look at the three big additions in a game for Tampa Bay.
2. The Rookies Get Their First Taste of the NFL
One of the more exciting parts of any preseason is the chance to see a team’s rookies for the first time. Personally, of course, those guys are typically excited to start their NFL careers, and for everyone else, it’s a chance to see a little bit of where they are in terms of readiness. Who doesn’t love making way-too-early judgments based off of little-to-no information at all?! All kidding aside, seeing the youngsters get some valuable reps in is usually a good time for all.
For the Bucs in 2020, Week 1 of the preseason would have presumably marked the debuts of Tristan Wirfs, Antoine Winfield Jr., Ke’Shawn Vaughn and the rest of the rookie class. Tyler Johnson may have missed out, though, as he’s currently dealing with an injury. Nonetheless, it would’ve certainly been interesting to see how ready Wirfs is, and there would’ve been the added interest to see if he was already lining up as the starting right tackle. It’s also reasonable to think that Winfield, Vaughn, Khalil Davis, Chapelle Russell and potentially Raymond Calais would’ve gotten a decent share of snaps to help them get acclimated to the NFL game. And without any preseason games at all, you have to feel for these guys—and rookies across the league—as they have to adjust on the fly this year.
3. How Does Matt Gay’s 2020 Begin?
Kicking competitions have become a hallmark of Buccaneer preseasons over the last several years, so of course we would be keeping a close eye on Matt Gay if Tampa Bay was actually opening up its exhibition slate on Friday. There’s been no indication that the team is really holding another kicking competition this year, although Elliott Fry is another kicker that is currently on the roster. Gay will have every chance to cement himself as the starting kicker heading into 2020, but given his inconsistency late in the 2019 season, there’s at least a little reason to be hesitant about his prospects for year two.
After an excellent stretch during the middle of last season, he ended his rookie campaign with a thud. So, where is Gay in terms of confidence right now? He seems to have a solid head on his shoulders, but the kicking game can be so fluid. A few bad games and you’re thinking about your job security. That’s why a preseason would’ve potentially been important for the 2019 fifth-round pick. If he had gotten a chance to get a few kicks under his belt in live games, perhaps that would’ve done a lot for him—and the team/fan base. Instead, it’s going to be high-pressure right out of the gate for Gay—as it will be for the rest of the team.
4. Which Bubble Players Stand Out?
Those who are going to be affected most by having no preseason in 2020 are the players fighting for roster spots. Guys on the roster bubble make or break their cases in training camp and the preseason. Now, without the latter, all of their chances to prove themselves will come at the team’s facility. It’s going to be difficult for newcomers, as they’ll have less familiarity with the playbook and schemes, as well as the coaching staffs. That’s why we might see a lot of the same depth guys make the initial roster out of camp this year. There will be no preseason heroes like there typically are.
But what if there had been a preseason? Who would’ve stepped up? Last year, it was Tanner Hudson becoming a favorite among fans. Ryan Griffin threw for 330 yards in the preseason opener as well, against the very same Steelers the Bucs were supposed to open up against again this year. This year, it could’ve been guys like Anthony Fabiano and John Molchon potentially stepping into backup roles on the offensive line. Undrafted rookie Michael Divinity Jr. could’ve been interesting to watch at the linebacker position. And we may have seen some more development from local talent Mazzi Wilkins at cornerback. There’s nothing quite like the second half of an NFL preseason game, right? Guys are fighting for their jobs and careers, in a lot of cases. Not having that this August is a bummer.
5. What Will Football Look Like in 2020?
This is somewhat of a gray area, as these “what we would’ve watched for” points are based on the idea that the preseason was going to be played as scheduled. But for this final point, we’re adding the caveat of the preseason being played as scheduled, with COVID-19 still being a reality. Because, until recently, the NFL seemed set to go through with the preseason despite the ongoing pandemic. And really, having football back in a time like this would’ve been a story on its own.
Would there have been fans allowed in the stadium? Probably not. But the new facemasks/visors/face shields, the protocols in place and the game itself would’ve been a sight to see, that’s for sure. Of course, this is all stuff we’ll see when the regular season gets underway in about a month, but it would’ve been a little more interesting to talk about when there’s not actual meaningful football to also pay attention to.
Well, there you have it. That’s some of what we would’ve watched for in a hypothetical Bucs-Steelers preseason Week 1 matchup. And now I’m sad. I’ll never take the preseason for granted again (until I inevitably do, possibly as early as the 2021 preseason).
But at least we’ll—fingers crossed—have football back in about a month, right? How are you spending your time until then, Bucs Nation? Let us know in the comments down below, plus you can give your own hypothetical thoughts about the preseason that was supposed to be.