Everyone wants their team to win every single game. So far this year, just one team in the NFL has done that, and history tells us the Patriots and Panthers will lose at least once this season, and the champagne will be flowing at Don Shula’s house with a handful of his undefeated 1972 standing around smiling for the cameras.
Tampa Bay sits at 3-5 after eight games, the halfway mark of the season. Last year at this time the Bucs had one win. Two years ago they had zero. Already they have one more win than last year’s team, and looking at the upcoming schedule, there are easily three more win opportunities ahead. Maybe even more. And it starts this week with a wounded Dallas Cowboys team that comes to Raymond James Stadium on Sunday.
The Bucs had their chances to win on Sunday against the Giants. If wide receiver Mike Evans comes down with even half of his six drops, if Doug Martin doesn’t let an almost certain touchdown squirt through his arms, and maybe if Akeem Spence doesn’t lose his cool and cost his team 15 yards late in the fourth quarter, we could easily be talking about a 4-4 football team. And take away the monumental collapse against the Redskins this team could easily be 5-3.
There are a ton of bright spots on this football team. First and foremost, this season’s draft class led by rookie quarterback and overall No. 1 draft pick Jameis Winston. Winston is on pace to throw for 3,794 yards as rookie which would blow away any other Bucs rookie quarterback by a long shot. And these aren’t cheap yards. Tampa Bay has been competitive in six of the eight games this season, and have ran a balanced offense. In other words, the majority of Winston’s passing totals haven’t come in garbage time where numbers can sometimes be skewed. And Winston has done this with Evans, Austin Seferian-Jenkins and Vincent Jackson on the field all together for just two quarters this season (first half against New Orleans in Week 2). Two quarters. Let that sink in.
Next up, another reason for optimism, the Bucs rookie offensive linemen. Poll any Bucs fan last August and ask them what was their biggest concern coming in the 2015 regular season and at least 75 percent would have said the offensive line. And with good reason. The Bucs surrendered 52 sacks in 2014, third worst in the NFL, and were going to start a rookie left tackle, Donovan Smith to protect Winston’s blind side, and another rookie who played his college football in front of crowds half the size of some Friday night attendance numbers down the road at Plant High School. Let’s face it, not many people would have predicted the Bucs offensive line to not only be improved, but to actually be strength of this team, yours truly included. Yet here we are with the Bucs set to make a run at the 2012 franchise record setting offense. The Bucs offense is on pace to put up 5,716 yards this year, which would be just 104 less than 2012’s 5,820 yards.
Defensively you can add in rookie linebacker Kwon Alexander who still has virtually no idea what he is doing yet, but is still making tons of plays while showing off incredible athleticism. In fact, Alexander is the only defensive player the Bucs have drafted during the Lovie Smith and Jason Licht regime. yYou can bet the next draft will be defensive heavy, just as the past two have been offensive drafts.
Of course everything isn’t sunshine, rainbows unicorns and lollipops. Which brings us to the defense, that is on the complete opposite end of the spectrum from the offense.
But did Sunday’s game against the Giants give fans, the players and the organization some hope? Tampa Bay held the Giants to just 327 yards of total offense and kept superstar wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. to only 105 yards on nine receptions, but more importantly out of the end zone and off the ESPN Top Plays of the Week. It is way too soon to say the defense has turned a corner, especially since they struggled to get off the field on third down, allowing the Giants to covert 9-of-16 opportunities, none more critical than on New York’s final drive when the Bucs were down just a touchdown and two-point conversion.
Many have been critical of Lovie Smith’s weekly musical chairs in the secondary, myself included. To me it seemed you needed to just find the four most talented secondary players and let them play week in and week out until they develop some cohesion and chemistry. However Smith’s philosophy paid off on Sunday with Sterling Moore getting the start opposite of “Hey” Jude Adjei-Barimah. The cornerback duo – Moore in particular – had an outstanding game with an interception and three pass break ups. There have been some games over the last two seasons where the entire secondary didn’t get three pass breakups. And for whatever reason nickel corner Alterraun Verner seemed to work well with Moore as he also had an interception of Giants QB Eli Manning.
Still the defense left a lot to be desired, particularly the defensive line, which pressured Manning only a handful of times and never got him to the ground. And no one will confuse Manning with Russell Wilson in terms of mobility and escapability. Tampa Bay will not win many, if any more games, without recording a sack of the opposing quarterbacks the rest of the season. Plain and simple, there are a number of upcoming quarterbacks who will carve up this Bucs secondary if the pass rush doesn’t improve. I mean we have already seen the Bucs make the Redskins Kirk Cousins look like Dan Marino in his prime. (And no Kirk, we “Didn’t like that!”)
But continuing to look at the glass half full, the Bucs are 3-5 with their two best defensive players not playing up to their ability, yet the Bucs were in the game up until the final Keystone Cops hot potato routine that gave up a last second Giants score. Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and Lavonte David both were sent into another tax bracket stratosphere this in the last year, yet both have failed to live up to their monthly bank statements. Just imagine the Lavonte David of 2013 flying all over the field, leading the team in splash plays and McCoy doing his best Sapp impression dragging quarterbacks to the ground in the fourth quarter. Add in the above mentioned Alexander, and maybe the right secondary combination, teamed with an offense capable of putting up scores at any point in the game, and all of a sudden the dark cloud (and smoke from the flag the a Giants fan tried to set on fire Sunday night) has maybe parted.
There is still plenty of opportunity for things to go south before the season is over. The Bucs have only won one game at home this season after going 0-8 last season at Raymond James. One more home loss and the best Tampa Bay could be is 4-4 at home. The key to being in contention for the playoffs is having a winning record at home.
But there are also opportunities to finish the season with 6-7 wins and primed for a serious playoff run in 2016.
Tampa Bay’s upcoming schedule to finish out the year: Dallas Cowboys 2-6 Philadelphia Eagles 4-4 Indianapolis Colts 4-5 Atlanta Falcons 6-3 New Orleans Saints 4-5 St, Louis Rams 4-4 Chicago Bears 3-5 Carolina Panthers 8-0
Most Bucs fans would have been pleased if you told them they would triple their win total in 2015 prior to the season starting, especially with a rookie quarterback, two rookie offensive linemen and a rookie middle linebacker. And if you told them they would do it with Louis Murphy, Jackson, Dotson, and Seferian-Jenkins missing significant time, they might have called you crazy. Yet this is where they are. Are there issues with this football team? You bet. Can they overcome them? Who knows. But Sunday’s game showed the Bucs aren’t that far away. A lot needs to change still, and the Bucs will need some bounces to go their way over the last eight games, but things are looking up. Not straight up, but heading the right direction.
As Lovie Smith is fond of saying, it’s as simple as that.
Mark Cook currently is the director of editorial content and Bucs beat writer and has written for PewterReport.com since 2011. Cook has followed the Buccaneers since 1977 when he first began watching football with his Dad and is fond of the 1979 Bucs team that came within 10 points of going to a Super Bowl. His favorite Bucs game is still the 1979 divisional playoff win 24-17 over the Eagles. In his spare time Cook enjoys playing guitar, fishing, the beach and family time.Cook is a native of Pinecrest in Eastern Hillsborough County and has written for numerous publications including the Tampa Tribune, In the Field and Ya'll Magazine. Cook can be reached at email@example.com