It’s the classic line muttered by fan bases accustomed to disappointment: We’ll get ‘em next year.
There’s always a little hopefulness in hiding there, but it’s usually hard to find. It’s buried under layers of reasonable pessimism accumulated over years of wasted seasons, missed opportunities and enough flat-out ineptitude that it’s a wonder ownership hasn’t been sued for damaging the area’s name and reputation by association.
It would be great to spend an offseason excited – legitimately – to contend for a division championship and Super Bowl again. Just counting down the days to watch your team get back out there and smack people around.
That’s not the case here because, as head coach Lovie Smith likes to say, the Bucs are close but they’re not there yet. Simple as that.
Sunday’s 86-2 beat down in Carolina (whatever, it’s irrelevant) sent Tampa Bay to its fourth loss in a row and fifth straight losing season. Yet even in the face of such a deflating conclusion, there are glimmers of hope. Not imposter, Michael Clayton-style glimmers but actual, honest-to-goodness sources of light.
Not that they could have gone much further the other way, the Bucs hit six wins after falling into only two last year. They have an NFL offensive coordinator and, as a result, an NFL offense once again. They have that new kid under center, too.
Vulnerability from past letdowns keeps many from investing too heavily into this band of potential winners, but the arrow’s pointing up.
NO DOWN TIME
Now that it’s all over, decompression time won’t last long before the focus shifts to free agency and draft prospects.
The Bucs enter next year with well over $40 million in salary cap space and 18 current players with expiring contracts. Of those 18, five were regular starters this season: RB Doug Martin, SS Chris Conte, DE Jacquies Smith, LB Danny Lansanah and FS Bradley McDougald. Running back Bobby Rainey can also be thrown on this list because he served as the team’s primary kick and punt returner. Martin, Conte and Rainey are unrestricted free agents, Lansanah and McDougald are restricted and Smith is an exclusive rights free agent.
Be it through free agency or the draft, Tampa Bay’s list of needs has a familiar sound to it. Find some effective edge rushers. Upgrade the defensive backfield. Get a field-stretching wide receiver to complement existing weapons.
General manager Jason Licht connected big time with last year’s draft on the offensive side of the ball. Early rumors suggest it’s the defense’s turn this spring, especially considering last year’s free-agent fixes didn’t do the trick. Cornerback Sterling Moore proved to be the best signing, becoming a full-time starter by midseason and logging the third most snaps of any Bucs defender. Linebacker Bruce Carter and defensive tackles Tony McDaniel and Henry Melton proved to be valuable based on others’ injuries or suspensions but are rotational players, not starters.
There’s no such thing as being at full-strength, of course, but it’s hard not to wonder what this team could have been had the injury bug not bitten quite so frequently this season.
The defensive line got crushed all year. Backup Henry Melton is the only interior lineman who managed to remain active for all 16 games. Pro Bowler Gerald McCoy missed only one game but played through shoulder and hand injuries, Tony McDaniel sat twice midseason, and Clinton McDonald and Akeem Spence finished the year on injured reserve.
After signing a nice extension following last season, receiver Louis Murphy barely made it past the Week 6 bye, taking yet another potential weapon away from rookie quarterback Jameis Winston. Rookie Kenny Bell, a fifth-round selection last spring, never made it out of the preseason and second-year tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins’ extended absence was well-documented agony.
It wasn’t all injury-related, either. Rookie standout Kwon Alexander’s absence at middle linebacker over the final four games seemed to strip the entire defense of its motor as Tampa Bay surrendered an average of 29.8 points over that span.
“He was definitely missed,” Coach Smith said during Monday’s end-of-year press conference. “You just look at the offensive side of the ball, it starts with the quarterback. Defensively, it starts with the Mike linebacker. We had a chance to see what Kwon was able to do. He’s a playmaker. He brought energy, toughness, relentless pursuit to the football. When you don’t have everything established, all of the foundational pieces established, and you lose one of those key pieces, you see the results of it. We didn’t win another game without him out there.”
CHECK THE ATTITUDE
In case there were a few fans still remaining that didn’t think the Bucs have some growing up to do, receiver Mike Evans’ ejection with 1:55 remaining in the game and season should have taken care of that.
The second-year wideout became just another notch in Panthers cornerback Josh Norman’s belt in terms of opponents he’s psychologically beaten on the football field.
Evans joins other Bucs such as defensive lineman William Gholston and tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins as repeat offenders when it comes to letting emotions get the best of them. Penalties killed the Bucs all year and these ones need to be eliminated. It is possible to play passionate, fiery football without hurting your team and part of the responsibility falls on the coaching staff, as well.
Evans’ unsportsmanlike conduct penalty and subsequent disqualification cost Tampa Bay 30 yards and moved them from inside the Carolina 15 all the way back to the 41. The situation’s effect on the outcome was nil and frustration from a disappointing season about to end was building. Would Evans have kept his cool if Tampa Bay was within a score? Maybe, but I wouldn’t bet on it. Not yet at least.
BAY CITY BLITZERS
It’s hard to say what to make of Tampa Bay mixing a higher number of blitz packages into its pass rush as the season progressed.
Was it a sign of what’s to come? Or was it strictly need-based as the defensive line’s depth deteriorated week by week?
Either way, it showed up quick Sunday in Carolina. The Bucs dialed up back-to-back blitzes producing consecutive sacks that pushed the Panthers out of field goal range and forced them to punt away their first possession. Both came up the gut, with linebacker Lavonte David registering the first and safety Keith Tandy picking up the second.
Coach Smith wants and needs his front four to handle the bulk of the pass-rushing duties for the defense to be successful. When it fails to do so, the secondary is prone to get shredded all day long.
Frustration can build when a coaching staff tries to make a philosophy work even when the personnel isn’t there or success continues to be in theory only.
Looking at Tampa Bay’s 6-10 record, then looking at the fluffy softness of its schedule is a more than a little disheartening.
There’s no denying that the gods of NFL scheduling smiled upon the Bucs this year and they responded by blowing opportunities left and right. Tampa Bay played only four games against playoff qualifiers, with NFC South rival Carolina accounting for two of those contests. Those teams – Carolina, Houston and Washington – were also the only 2015 opponents to finish above .500. Atlanta and Indianapolis ended up salvaging disappointing seasons with 8-8 records. The Bucs managed to squeeze two wins out of seven total games against those non-losing teams and both came against Atlanta during the Falcons’ midseason freefall.
So as Tampa Bay’s future brightens, it’s going to have to prove its worthiness with wins against better competition. The Bucs match up next year with the AFC West (Denver and Oakland at home, Kansas City and San Diego on the road) and NFC West (Seattle and St. Louis at home, Arizona and San Francisco on the road). A home meeting with Chicago and road trip to Dallas round out the non-division schedule.