Week 1. Atlanta, Georgia.
The setting was all too familiar. Following a Buccaneers turnover late in the first quarter, the Falcons capitalized on a short field and took their first lead of the game. After getting the early 3-0 lead, plenty of Bucs fans would’ve told you the writing was on the wall for a quick three-and-out with Tampa now trailing 10-3 and all momentum gone. But, instead, what ensued was a nine-play, 75-yard drive that ended in pay dirt and a tie ball game.
There are five reasons this year’s Buccaneers team was different from teams of the past. The first reason was offensive creativity.
For years, the entire premise of the Buccaneers’ offense was in the stature of its weapons. Vincent Jackson, Mike Evans and Austin Seferian-Jenkins made up a monstrous trio of receivers that, on paper, should have provided mismatches week-in and week-out regardless of the opponent. Though each member of the “Six-Five Squad” had their share of production, their efforts never seemed to bring consistency. That’s what has always seemed to hold the Buccaneers back over the years. Though that receiving corps. was one of the best the team has had over the last decade, when it came to sustaining drives, the giants in pewter and red were often left empty-handed.
When Dirk Koetter came in as the team’s offensive coordinator in 2015, things started to change. All of a sudden, those players were starting to see production, even when it wasn’t on the stat sheet; their presence began impacting the game plan just as much as their catches. Soon it wasn’t just about getting yards on the next play, but rather, it became a chess match of how to set up formations and schemes that work well when they’re called, but also layer a theme or a counter play for future drives. You see, it’s not just about getting Mike Evans open; it’s about getting Adam Humphries open so that he can then get Evans open; it’s about getting Cameron Brate open so that later in the game, his route might get Charles Sims open.
That nine-play, 75-yard drive that tied the game in week one had throws to Evans, Humphries, Brandon Myers and Doug Martin. That drive they played small ball, but on later drives, they scored touchdowns from 23 yards, 30 yards and 45 yards out. Koetter began to teach his team last year, and has continued to teach them this year that it’s not about who they have, but rather, how they’re used. Each week the depth chart seems to get thinner and thinner, and each week the team continued to find ways to move the ball. That’s a sign of creativity, and a sign that the right minds are in place when you can do a lot with a little. Despite being undermanned, the Bucs would finish the season with over 5,500 yards after topping 6,000 yards for the first time last year.
Week 4. Charlotte, North Carolina.
In the three weeks prior, the Bucs had been embarrassed by the Cardinals, choked away a game to the Rams and didn’t look like they belonged against the Broncos. In other words, the Week Six bye week couldn’t get there fast enough. It was a meeting of two 1-3 teams when Tampa faced off against Carolina on Monday Night Football – a rare occurrence for a team that’s had more top 10 draft picks than playoff births in the last ten years.
But, there are five reasons this year’s Buccaneers team was different from teams of the past. The second reason was their will to never give up.
As the fourth quarter was winding down and the game tied, the Panthers drove the ball all way to the Bucs’ goal line. It seemed like déjà vu. Bucs fans were about to watch a hard-fought, close game that their team just couldn’t pull out. I could remember rolling my eyes as Carolina marched down the field about as easily as one could – and with Derek Anderson at quarterback, not even Cam Newton. But just when we thought we knew what this team was destined to be, they did something un-Bucs like. They came up with a clutch play, this time in the form of a turnover.
Suddenly, there was life, and just as the team did so many times in Atlanta in week one, their offense remained creative. The team kept the Panthers defense guessing, and at the end of a 10-play, 52-yard drive, they put their second-round kicker in perfect position to take the lead with under four minutes to play. All he had to do was knock in a 46-yard field goal. He had it in the bag. He was the most clutch kicker in college football history. He … he … missed it; he missed it. How “Bucs” was that?
It was a short field for the Panthers. All they needed was 30 yards. They were playing at home; they had all the momentum on their side. The Buccaneers defense should have been dead in the water. But they weren’t. Instead, they forced a three-and-out. They gave Tampa life, and after starting the final drive of the game on their own 14-yard line, they didn’t kneel the ball, they didn’t play for overtime. No, they went for the win. As they marched down the field and gave their kicker one last shot at redemption, I remember the first words that came out of my mouth when that 38-yard field goal went through as the clock hit zero:
“The Bucs never do that.”
We hear coaches say all the time that their team has to play the full 60 minutes. The Bucs did, and they have – every last second.
Week 10. Tampa, Florida.
The fans had read about it too many times already this season: “There is no home field advantage in Tampa”. The Bucs had only won three home games in the previous three seasons combined before hosting the Bears on that mid-November Sunday afternoon. After falling to both Oakland and Atlanta in back-to-back weeks, a loss to Chicago at home might have lost the entire fan base for the year.
But, there are five reasons this year’s Buccaneers team was different from teams of the past. The third reason was playing to their talent level.
In the NFL, any team can win on any given Sunday; these players are that good. But within that truth is another that some teams are just more talented than their opponents. The Bucs have had some talented players over the years. In 2010, their roster featured Josh Freeman, who was playing his best ball, with LeGarrette Blount and Mike Williams, plus Barrett Ruud, Gerald McCoy and Aqib Talib on the defensive side. In 2012, they added big time names like Darrell Revis, Dashon Goldson and Vincent Jackson. And, in 2015, they had virtually the same roster as the one this season, but couldn’t muster more than six wins. Tampa Bay’s problem was and has always been living up to the talent they bring in.
Florida is known as a melting pot. People move down here from all over. That means sometimes they bring their northern or western team allegiances with them, and for that, the area gets a bad rap as a true sports city. But, ask anyone who was old enough to attend games back in the early 2000’s and they’ll tell you that when the excitement is there, this is very much a football town.
What got people excited back then were the names Derrick Brooks, Warren Sapp, Ronde Barber, Simeon Rice, John Lynch, Booger McFarland, Shelton Quarles and Dexter Jackson. All of those names were names of defensive players. Some of those players have their names up in the Bucs Ring of Honor; some are even in the Hall of Fame. Back in the day, it was defense that made this town come alive, and it was defense that made them come alive again against Chicago. In a game that wasn’t even as close as the 36-10 final score notes, Tampa’s defense came up with two interceptions (one for a touchdown), two forced fumbles, a safety. That’s what the Tampa defenses of old are most remembered for. They put lesser offense in their place. They played to their talent level every week.
On the final meaningful drive for Chicago in that game – third-and-3 with 4:44 left in the game — before the Bears broke the huddle, I swear I could still hear that chilling guitar riff from AC/DC’s Hells Bells like they always used to play on big third downs. I saw McCoy and Lavonte David raise their arms to get the crowd into it, just like Sapp and Brooks. I saw a stadium, the embodiment of a city, come alive once again.
And I saw a helpless offense fail to convert against a suffocating Buccaneers defense, just like I saw it happen many years ago.
Week 12. Tampa, Florida.
Before the season, if you were to show Bucs fans their team’s upcoming schedule and told them they would be 5-5 going into Week 12, most of them would have taken it in a heartbeat – this schedule was tough. But after a thrilling upset win in Kansas City, the ride was suppose to be over as one of the NFL’s powerhouse teams was coming into town with a full healthy Russell Wilson for the first time since the early weeks.
But, there are five reasons this year’s Buccaneers team was different from teams of the past. The fourth reason was that they are not afraid of anyone.
I remember the play; I’m sure you do, too. That match-up was all my dad could talk about at the tailgate before the game. Richard Sherman versus Evans. The All-Pro corner who, for some, is known more for talking than playing, going up against one of the league’s top receiving weapons in an offense where his production meant everything.
The play came late in the second quarter. It was the Bucs second drive of the game after they had scored a touchdown on their first. After a good run from Martin and a long pass complete to Brate, Evans found himself one-on-one with Sherman. After looking back on it, Evans wasn’t just Jameis Winston’s first read, he was his only read, because Winston believed in his guy all the way. The route down the field was just how Sherman likes it. There was pulling and pushing right at the snap. But, in the end, Evans beat Sherman at his own game, Winston beat the daunting Seattle defense at their own game and Koetter beat Carroll at his own game.
What separates good teams from great teams is often fear, or lack thereof. Fear is no longer a factor in this organization. Not from the coaching staff, not from the game plan, and not from the team’s signal caller. That play, that one play, might have been the one that changed the entire outlook on the season.
Week 14. Tampa, Florida.
Before working for PewterReport.com I attended the Bucs vs. Saints game with some friends from out of town, one of whom is a New Orleans fan. As we walked through the tailgates and into the stadium, she said to me, “I’ve never heard so many people express this much hate for Drew Brees before.” I told her that it’s no surprise to me. For what feels like forever, the three things I was most certain of in life were death, taxes and Brees ripping Tampa Bay fans’ hearts out.
But, there are five reasons this year’s Buccaneers team was different from teams of the past. The fifth and final reason was that they began exorcising their demons.
There’s one word that comes to my mind more than any other when I think of the Sean Payton/Brees duo in New Orleans: points. Thirty-seven, 42, 41, and 35 are some of the final scores from the Saints in this rivalry over the last four seasons, and not once has Tampa scored more than any of those numbers in any game against them. Since 2008, the Bucs have only beaten the Saints twice at Ray-Jay. Add on to that the fact that last year’s win in New Orleans was the first time the Bucs had beaten the Saints anywhere in five years and you can get a glimpse of how much this organization has struggled to keep up with that offense.
Going into that week, the Bucs had already beaten the Falcons in a shootout in Week 1. They had already upset Carolina in dramatic fashion in Week 5. They had gone to places like Arrowhead and Qualcomm and come out victorious. They had played a defensive game against the Seahawks and came out on top. But even though all of that was great, and Tampa Bay was getting over a lot of their previous humps, there was still New Orleans.
On Sunday at 4:25 p.m. at Raymond James Stadium, Bucs fans’ worries for this season went silent. No matter what that list above read, beating New Orleans wasn’t just something that would be nice if it happened, it had to happen; and it did. The Bucs defense and special teams looked like they were playing at warp speed, and for once, it was Brees who looked flustered all game long. It was everything we needed to see, including that ever so elusive win in a rivalry that felt like a curse.
When asked to come up with five reasons this year’s playoff-hopeful Buccaneers team was different from teams of the past, I could have gone plenty of directions. I could’ve told you that for the first time in perhaps franchise history, the loudest, most persuasive and most confident voice in the locker room is coming from their quarterback.
I could’ve told you that this team is playing for each other more and more each week. I could’ve told you that getting immediate impact out of their rookies, Vernon Hargreaves and Noah Spence has accelerated the production of this defense more than any draft class since 1995. I could have told you this organization finally has a coach they can believe in.
But, in the end, it’s all of those things and more that make up the five intangibles I listed. This Buccaneers team was playing creatively, on both sides of the ball. They refused to give up, and weren’t afraid of the big moments. Instead of hoping to win, the Bucs were believing they would win. They did play to their talent level. They played without the fear of failure. They did exorcise some of their demons and losing streaks that have plagued them for so long. And most importantly, Tampa Bay finished 9-7 and ended the season as winners for the first time since 2010.
Sometimes, the Bucs played great; at all times, they played for each other. But most importantly, they looked like a team that will be playing playoff football real soon.