The days of thinking playoffs have come to an end in Tampa Bay, but not before rookie quarterback Jameis Winston and other young Bucs whet the appetite of fans already looking forward to next year.
Even in the aftermath of Thursday night’s disaster and last Sunday’s flop, there remains a sense of optimism for 2016 and beyond. While there might not be much to play for in terms of continuing the season, Tampa Bay still has two more games left to see what they’ve got moving forward.
“It’s a lesson learned,” Winston said during his brief postgame press conference. “You’ve just got to learn a lesson and move forward. The season’s not over yet. What we wanted, our playoff hopes, they’re probably done. But the season isn’t over yet. We’re still going to compete. We’re still going to go out there and fight and try to go 8-8.”
The main reason why optimism didn’t get completely KO’d last night is Winston: Not so much for Thursday’s performance but for the entirety of his first 14 games as a professional.
From selecting him with the first overall pick last spring to naming him the starter during training camp, Tampa Bay went all-in with Winston and it’s paid off so far. He’s become the team’s single-season statistical leader for rookies in most major categories and added touchdown passes to the list last night. Winston’s second and final scoring hookup lifted his number to an even 20 and pushed him past Mike Glennon’s 19 set in 2013.
Winston added to his team rookie record for passing yards in a season by notching his first 300-yard game of his career in St. Louis. His 363-yard output ranks second in Bucs history for first-year signal callers, trailing only the 369 yards Vinny Testaverde aired it out for against New Orleans in 1987. Winston sits at 3,422 passing yards on the season and can make a realistic run at becoming the third rookie since 1970 to throw for 4,000.
Couple the statistical achievements with Winston’s presence on and off the field and it’s easy to see why fans and media members around the country believe Tampa Bay’s found its quarterback of the future.
The silver lining of Tampa Bay’s injury woes is that coaches and front office talent evaluators get to see backups in live, regular-season action.
Unfortunately that’s led to some ugly moments on the field and plenty of inconsistency lately.
The extended tryout of receiver Donteea Dye took another turn for the worse last night. Injuries again prompted the rookie to receive his third start after dropping a crucial late-game pass Sunday against New Orleans. Dye picked up right where he left off Thursday, dropping his first target after Winston hit him in the end zone while extending a third-down play with his legs.
Doing a better job to display his future worth to the team has been fellow rookie wideout Adam Humphries. He caught all six of his targets last night for 60 yards and looks to be a valuable role player and slot receiver who’s also gained the trust of Winston.
Rookie middle linebacker Kwon Alexander passed his entrance exams with flying colors and made his fourth-round selection look like a steal. Then came the four-game, season-ending suspension for testing positive for an undisclosed performance enhancer. The Bucs are good to go at linebacker with starters Alexander, Lavonte David and Danny Lansanah, assuming they bring back the latter for another year.
Depth is an issue, however. The team brought Bruce Carter in this past offseason to take over in the middle and got outperformed by Alexander. It wasn’t until the rookie’s suspension kicked in last week that Carter got his first start – and that ended with an injury. The fact that Tampa Bay called Orie Lemon back for the fourth time this season and had to start him on the strongside last night was troubling.
Then there’s the defensive line.
End/tackle William Gholston keeps making plays one moment then disappearing the next, all while sprinkling in a steady dose of boneheaded, temper-related penalties along the way. Howard Jones continues to get in on the occasional sack or splash play and could stick around but he’s a pass rusher only.
The 2016 offseason will be yet another attempt for the Bucs to find impact edge rushers.
This belongs up in the previous section, too, but it deserves to be separated.
The cornerback position has been shaken up more than any other on the defensive side of the ball and at least one portion of the equation is starting to crack. Jude Adjei-Barimah is looking a lot more like the undrafted free agent pickup he was in July than the Bucs’ future on the outside. His play has declined since taking over starting duties six weeks ago and that was epitomized last night when Rams receiver Kenny Britt toasted him for a 60-yard touchdown on a hitch-and-go route.
Following that late first-quarter failure, coaches switched to starter-turned-backup Johnthan Banks to take over. A 2013 second-round draft pick of the Bucs, Banks ended up playing 46 of 52 defensive snaps compared to just nine for Adjei-Barimah.
Tackling, especially in the open field, has been a positive for Adjei-Barimah, but his coverage skills are beginning to get exposed. Seeing if Banks gets his first start since Week 8 in Atlanta will be something to look for as the team prepares for Chicago.
IN THE RED
‘Tis the season and all head coach Lovie Smith ever wants for Christmas is defensive takeaways.
Players had been more than happy to oblige earlier in the year, but that request has since gone unfulfilled. Tampa Bay finds itself back in the red when it comes to turnover margin.
The Bucs failed to create a takeaway for the second game in a row and third time in the past four after recording at least one in the season’s first 10 contests. Tampa Bay’s lost the turnover margin by a combined 5-1 in those past four games, losing three.
Another close-but-not-quite moment came late in the second quarter when Lansanah couldn’t hold on to a catchable interception of Rams quarterback Case Keenum.
“There are a lot of plays like that where we were close but really far away,” Smith said of that missed opportunity. “Being close just doesn’t do it on a night like tonight. That is kind of the story, we were close, did a few good things, but didn’t play consistent football.”
SILVER LININGS (PART II)
Winston isn’t the only Buccaneer with season-long numbers reaching impressive heights.
Running back Doug Martin and receiver Mike Evans are busy setting personal or team records, as well.
Depending on what goes down Sunday in Minnesota, Martin is the NFL’s current leader in rushing yardage. His 91-yard, 18-carry performance allowed him to, at least temporarily, lead Vikings running back Adrian Peterson at the top of that list. Martin’s now at 1,305 yards and is 239 away from tying James Wilder’s single-season franchise rushing record set in 1984. Martin’s current total places him third all-time behind Wilder and his own mark of 1,454 posted during his 2012 rookie season.
As for Evans, the second-year wideout recorded his fifth 100-yard game of the season in St. Louis. In doing so, his 157 yards on nine receptions put him over the 1,000-yard mark for the second time in as many pro seasons. Evans is the fourth Bucs receiver to ever post back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons, joining Keyshawn Johnson, Joey Galloway and Vincent Jackson, and the first to do it in his initial two pro seasons.
With 66 catches and 1,046 yards, Evans is two receptions and five yards off last year’s pace with two games remaining. A stat to address this offseason for Evans and the entire offensive staff is his three touchdowns – nine short of the franchise record-tying 12 he hauled in last year.