It’s been a long time since Bucs fans have had a reason to look ahead and feel good about what they’ve seen out of their football team. Last year, Jameis Winston was a huge part of a turnaround from a 2-14 team to a 6-10 team who was in the playoff hunt before losing the final four games in 2015. In 2016, the Bucs clinched their first .500 or better season since going 10-6 in 2010 under Raheem Morris. Sure, plenty of fans see that season as being a huge fluke considering they plummeted to 4-12 the very next season. Nonetheless, it was a 10-win season in the NFL and those aren’t easy to come by for any team not named the New England Patriots.
Following their five-game winning streak that had them in the driver’s seat of a playoff push, the Bucs have lost two straight and are all but mathematically eliminated from the post season. Absolutely a disappointment considering how the NFC is shaping up to finish. However despite the collapse, I’d ask Bucs fans to step back and look at just how 2016 has been, in fact, a successful season for the Bucs no matter how their finale against the Panthers turns out.
In his second season, Winston has not disappointed. He heads into Sunday’s game with 27 touchdowns and could very well hit the 30-mark against a suspect Panthers secondary. He threw 22 last season and sure, his INT totals are up and you don’t necessarily want to see that, but remember that four of them came in the Week 2 blowout loss in Arizona and three came in Dallas two weeks ago against the NFC’s best. Looking at the other side of that coin, he’s thrown seven touchdowns and just one INT against the first place Falcons in two games as well as five touchdowns and just a single INT against Oakland, Seattle, and Kansas City combined – all playoff teams. One final note – he’s also staring down a second consecutive 4,000-yard season – something that’s never been done in team history.
Doug Martin played in just eight games after finishing second in the rushing title race a year ago. A patch work running attack that averaged just 3.5 yards/carry through 15 games usually doesn’t have a team in the playoff hunt. Yet here they are.
After the Week 5 game against the Panthers, the Bucs put Vincent Jackson on IR and haven’t had much depth at the WR position since with other key injuries coming into play. Yet Mike Evans has put together another elite season in his third year with the team catching 11 touchdowns and already setting a career-high in catches with 91 before Sunday’s game as well as a career-high 1256 yards with one game left to play. Evans could finish atop the league in both of those categories after Week 17 wraps.
Cameron Brate is legit. The third-year tight end is tied for the NFL lead in touchdowns at his position with eight and is second on the team in catches with 57. I’d wager heading into 2017 he’ll be among every expert’s lists of top TE in the game. Nothing wrong with having your #2 receiving threat be a tight end. Just ask Tom Brady, Phillip Rivers, or Drew Brees how their tight end targets have faired in their careers.
The defense has improved. Despite a few games to forget over the course of the season, Tampa Bay’s defense shown signs they’re ready to take that next step to consistency for 16 games. They are 11th in the NFL in sacks (35) and tied for 10th in INTs (14). That’s up from 14th and 21st respectively from a year ago with one game left to play this season. Second-round pick, Noah Spence, had a slow start but has become a legitimate threat off the edge along with free agent pickup, Robert Ayers Jr.
Special teams has to be the most improved unit in 2016 save for the kicking struggles in the first half of the season for second-round pick Roberto Aguayo. Punter Bryan Anger is among the best in football and got himself a Pro Bowl alternate this season for his superb work, especially at pinning opponents deep. Aguayo, despite his struggles, has put together a nice second half having missed just two field goals since the start of their winning streak against Chicago back on November 13th.
That five-game winning streak was as impressive a five-game stretch as they’ve had in maybe a decade and it was proof not only to fans but to the entire team and coaching staff that this team is capable of playing with anyone in the league when they’re at their best. First year head coach, Dirk Koetter, has kept a good hold on the offense that will most likely eclipse last year’s point total of 342. Heading into the finale at Raymond James Stadium against Carolina, the Bucs have scored 337 and were held to under 10 points just twice through 15 games. Four times they’ve put up 30+ and nine times 20+ including those four.
Imagine what this team can accomplish in 2017 with a healthier offense and a third-year quarterback who just continues to get better and improve as a leader, as well. Imagine a defense continuing to get better under Mike Smith who’s first year as defensive coordinator helped that unit drop from 26 points/game allowed in 2015 to 23.5/game this season including that five-game stretch where they held opponents to under 11/game.
The future is bright, fans. Regardless of the outcome Sunday, for the first time since 1986-1988 this team will have put together three consecutive seasons improving their record year over year. That’s a lot of football and a milestone that can’t be ignored.
Sure, 9-7 looks a lot sexier than 8-8 and we all want our Bucs to finish strong. So throw some burgers on the grill, kick back, and enjoy (barring a miracle) the conclusion of the 2016 Tampa Bay Buccaneers season this Sunday.
There’s a lot more good to come.
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