CHARLOTTE, NC - JANUARY 03: Jared Allen #69 and teammate Charles Johnson #95 of the Carolina Panthers tackle Doug Martin #22 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the 2nd half during their game at Bank of America Stadium on January 3, 2016 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
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.
I recall Dungy saying that the first thing he needed to change back in the 90’s was the attitude of a loser. He ushered in that new attitude, some new players (yes FAs too), and even a major change in uniforms to help. Sadly, after reaching the pinnacle we are now back to that losing attitude…we need to fix it (again) as a priority, just like Tony did!
I think that Tampa is at a crossroads. Tampa with the 2016 schedule Tampa bay can get better. One think the reason Tampa loss 4 in a roe is Kwon Alexander and his problem.The bucs need to advise this young man about drugs and watch him he must understand he is a good player but he must watch what he takes-Go Bucs
Sorry folks, I’m done thinking about this year! Not wasting any more time on what could have been. Got happy thoughts about what next season could be. Goodnight Mrs. Calabash! Last one turn the lights out! lol.
I don’t know where Mrs. Calabash is, but I know we need to sign Martin and maybe make an effort at a couple of the others such as Conte, McDougald, and Jack Smith. Michael Clayton is still on the team Eric. He changed numbers.
Late to the game on this, but that made me laugh, 76Buc. I hope not!
I’m strictly looking ahead and believe we will have more wins than loses. I based that on a new attitude adjustment; signing Martin, maybe a couple other players who contracts are up too; Gerald McCoy comes to camp 20 pounds heavier and stronger; ASJ come in camp in shape; we sign 4 Free Agents of a variety of need positions; we draft DE’s, CB, Safety, WR, OL, RB. The most important part though is Winston who comes into Camp and had gotten better in the off season. yep, life is good. Go Bucs!
Dungy was lucky when he took over the team he had four Pro Bowl players and two future Hall of Famers when he got here. What a lucky break,
No one had to change Nickerson’s, Brooks, Sapp’s or Lynch’s attitude.
Martin needs to be resigned and leave Vjax alone if he won’t renegotiate unless they can find a proven wide out with speed.
Conte, Melton, Jacques Smith and I am sure a few others need to be resigned as well.
Give George Johnson a version of the Buccaneer home game and send him back to that toilet called Detroit. Happy motoring, George.
My sentiments exactly drdneast. We always here folks taint Jon Gruden’s (the coach not the poster) Superbowl victory by claiming he did it with Dungy’s team. In my view, both benefited by the players Sam Wyche left in the cupboard in Lynch, Nickerson, Brooks and Sapp.
So now we enter another off-season and look forward to the excitement of Free Agency and of course the Draft. I suppose we have to keep taking swings at acquiring some talent via the Free Agent market. I think this fan base has finally learned that the big headline that follows each signing may be the high point.
Everyone knows the team needs, but my Draft philosophy will always be Best Player. As example, with the signing of F.A. Bruce Carter to be the MLB, there was little need to sign some smallish LB in the 4th round, but the Bucs had him ranked high enough that he was considered the best player available.
I understand it’s your opinion @drdneast…but “Tony Dungy was lucky”, as in his success, the turnaround of our dumpster-fire of a team, his nomination for the HoF…luck?…I have to disagree that with one. Yes Sapp, Brooks and Lynch were 3 excellent pieces to inherit…but one could make the same argument about Winston, LvD and GMC…it takes more than just talent to right the ship.
Good point dude. I have always said Dungy got a break and benefitted from Sam Wyches brilliance. Always good to here from the long time fans. Myself I think we should make every effort to sign Calvin Johnson. Evans and Johnson sounds good to me. I’d also keep Jackson onboard too, maybe less money but he is a good football player not just a receiver.
Safties can’t light up receivers crossing the middle like Lynch, Barber did. Not allowed anymore and that’s one big reason why Tampa2 will not work. Receivers have no fear. With next years schedule being much harder and 3 west coast trips we will be lucky to get 6 wins again, I don’t see or feel the optimism. Hope I am wrong though.
Safeties lighting up receivers crossing the middle is not the strength of the Tampa2. It is providing enough pass rush with your front 4 that the other 7 can play pass coverage. Regardless, Seattle played a similar style with the pass rush they were getting and yes they seriously lit up receivers crossing the middle.
Thanks scubog. Always thought Sam Wyche should have gotten more credit for what he did when he was here.
They also saddled him down with Trent Dlifer who he didn’t want because he already had Craig Erikson who he liked and preferred. So did I.
I have always advocated taking the best player on the board, within reason, no matter what the position.
By not doing so is why we passed on Arron Rogers.
I am very much looking forward to next season. The Bucs have a franchise qb that wants to win, that wants to lead, and that wants to bring a culture of winning. This is something the Bucs sorely needed and now have!
Everyone wants lovie gone but i thought he bright in the entire front office and was also in charge of changing out entire scouting department. I give him an a+for bringing in the gm and got once we have had successful drafts! Now is time to continue the trend and we will see the results on Sunday’s!
just for the record – the poll that PR is running has the Fire/Retain Lovie vote roughly split 50/50…there a re a lot of vocal “fire-hims” but it seems not everyone wants that…
Very interested to see where this goes next year. I worry greatly about losing Koetter this offseason. Your QB needs stability in a scheme for more than a year. Look at the great Qb’s and the stability they’ve had. New England, Indianapolis , Greenbay, and the ‘aints.
Keeping Koetter is our number one priority, even if that means canning Lovie to do it.
Next we need to sign Dougie as he doesn’t have a ton of mileage from his injuries and shouldn’t be too expensive. Next years running back class will have some studs to pick up such as Fournette and Cook.
Keep VJ as long as well if can get him a little cheaper.
I saw a mocj draft that had us taking The De from OK state, I’m not going to try and butcher his name in the first, and then Shawn King from Iowa in the second at DB. hat would be a solid First two picks. If we do take a DB in the first, the more I see of Alexander from Clemson, I love his coverage skills. He’s only 5’10” but big guys aren’t easy to find and usually can’t cover as easily due to their longer strides.
Ramsey will be gone and we’ll never get him unless we trade up for him. Hargreaves might be as well but he got roasted by Michigan in the bowl game. Didn’t like seeing that.
Should be interesting but now that Mankins might retire we are also going to need a lineman in this draft as well. SO many peaces to need.
Even though Lovie and Licht haven’t hit on free agency, the bucs have to be players this year. Just too many needs. With our touhgt schedule next year, I am not going to go into the season with very high hopes. With Jameis all things are possible, and he will get the losers out of the clubhouse. But it could take an additional year or two. Just trying to be realistic. Great future though guys.
I have another situation to monitor and that is Gerald McCoy. I’ve been reading there is problems here between McCoy and jameis. Personally I think Jameis was talking about McCoy in his post game speech. Rumors were McCoy was in that group of defensive lineman laughing after the game.
Then while being interviewed, Jameis pressed started and the reporters went to check it out as McCoy says ” go listen to Jameis, have to see what Jameis says”. mccoy is a jokester and this might have been taken out if context but I’ve said all season there is a problem here. And if there is bye bye McCoy, take your jokes and your fun somewhere else. Just get a first round pick for him.
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