It’s been a long, grueling road since 2007 – the last time the Tampa Bay Buccaneers showed their faces in a playoff game. Since that last playoff appearance, the Bucs are on their fifth head coach not to mention a revolving door of coordinators and personnel. The pre-season began with a 17-9 loss on Thursday to the Eagles up in Philly. The Bucs know they have a lot to prove before Week 1 arrives and they take that first snap in Atlanta. As a team, they must prove they can take that next step after a disappointing end to their 2015 season in which they were 6-6 at one point and in the thick of a playoff push before dropping the final four games of the season.
Their new head coach, Dirk Koetter, is the first offensive-minded coach since Jon Gruden. Funny enough, the last time they went to the post-season, was with Gruden on the sidelines.
So what have they done on the field to warrant fans being optimistic about a return to January football in Tampa Bay? Well, if you ask me, they’ve got plenty of pieces in place to do just that.
- JAMEIS WINSTON – It starts with the QB. Any coach or football analyst will tell you that. Winston set rookie records in his freshman season in the NFL last year and showed absolutely no signs of regression in the first pre-season game v the Eagles. Should you expect 30 TDs and 4,500 yards in his sophomore year to consider him taking that “next step?” Of course not. Any fan who expects a numbers increase isn’t looking at the bigger picture. Sure it could happen – but what fans should most look for is his continued maturity and game-management ability. With the weapons he has at his disposal and Koetter in charge of the offense for a second season, Jameis is going to be just fine.
- DEFENSE – As a whole unit, these guys need to continue to gel and improve. Plenty of returning players at Mike Smith’s disposal with a lot of “Pro Bowl promise” among them. A full season of Kwon Alexander will absolutely help the linebacking core and, of course, maybe one of the most under-appreciated linebackers in the NFL, Lavonte David, should continue to get better – which should terrify opposing offenses. I see Gerald McCoy finally breaking through into that double-digit sack milestone with an improved edge rush from Robert Ayers and Jacquis Smith. I also could see rookie Noah Spence in the running for defensive rookie of the year if he’s as good as advertised and gets significant playing time. Also – don’t sleep on Will Gholston. The secondary should be vastly improved with the additions of Brent Grimes and rookie Vernon Hargreaves. Safety position is a question mark but veterans Chris Conte and Bradley MacDougal will most likely wind up your starters and be serviceable.
- PENALTIES – The Bucs were tied with the Bills as the most penalized team in the NFL last year. This can’t be repeated or everything else goes to waste no matter how improved other facets of their game prove to be. Penalties happen. Stupid penalties shouldn’t. Whether it’s the offensive line bringing back a touchdown or Mike Evans spouting off at an official – this might be the most important caviot to the Bucs returning to the playoffs. Dirk Koetter won’t stand for this repeating…and neither will the fans.
- FAST START – Three of the Bucs first five games are against 2015 playoff teams. If they can manage a winning record heading into their Week 6 bye, they’ll come back playing their next four games against .500 or worse teams and be in pretty good shape to finish the first half of the season in a playoff race, much like they were last year before they ended the season losing their last four to finish 6-10.
- RUNNING GAME – Doug Martin finished second to Adrian Peterson in 2015 by a mere 83 yards for the NFL rushing title, averaging just under five yards/carry. Charles Sims also racked up over 500 yards on the ground, himself, and finished with the same exact 4.9 yards/carry as Martin. This is the most deadly duo of backs in the NFL and, if both stay healthy for a second year in a row, nothing says they can’t prove that once again. Martin will compete, once again, for a rushing title and prove to the Bucs brass his new deal was well worth it. It will be interesting to see how Mike James and Storm Johnson factor in if one or both make the roster. They both bring something different to the table and could be valuable in the running game or return game.
This is, of course, the perfect formula for success. A perfect formula rarely occurs if ever. Injuries play a part more than anything else and makes it that much harder to analyze a team through just one week of the pre-season. However, the pieces are finally in place both on the field and on the sideline for this Bucs team to be even a step better than they were last year. A step better could very well mean at the very least a .500 record if not a shot at the playoffs come December. For my money, they stack up pretty well inside the NFC South and I don’t see any of the other three teams having done so much in the off-season to warrant another run away division winner like the Panthers found themselves in last year going a shocking 15-1 before their run to the Super Bowl.
Bucs football in January could be a real possibility. Fans just have to keep the faith and believe that “Koetter and Co” can get them there.
“America’s quarterback” believes.
So should you.
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