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SR’s Fab 5 is a collection of inside scoop, analysis and insight from yours truly, PewterReport.com publisher and Bucs beat writer Scott Reynolds. Here are a few things that caught my attention this week at One Buc Place and around the NFL.
FAB 1. Bucs Can Win With Fitzmagic
Jameis Winston will be suspended for three games, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter.
The 2018 season is already over, right?
I mean, in a league that only features 16 regular season games, losing Winston for three games is the death knell, right?
Not so fast.
Don’t automatically pencil in an 0-3 start for the Buccaneers.
Not these Buccaneers.
(Oh my heavens, I’m sounding as optimistic as Gerald McCoy! How in the hell did that happen? Aren’t I the guy that has been suggesting this offseason that we not give Tampa Bay the benefit of the doubt after yet another underwhelming season – that this team should prove that it can be good before we buy into any more hype?)
Now, I’m not necessarily projecting a 3-0 start for the Bucs – with Ryan Fitzpatrick at the helm of Dirk Koetter’s offense – nor am I suggesting that the Bucs will make the playoffs this year.
Starting the 2018 campaign 3-0 would be some real Fitzmagic.
But a 1-2 or even 2-1 start to the season isn’t out of the question – especially with the additions Tampa Bay general manager Jason Licht made this offseason.
The last time I checked, McCoy is expected to show up in New Orleans on September 9.
Mike Evans is planning on being in the Big Easy, too.
Kwon Alexander and Lavonte David are also going to be in New Orleans for the season opener.
Cam Brate and O.J. Howard will be there to play the Saints as well.
And thankfully, Ryan Jensen, Ronald Jones, Beau Allen, Jason-Pierre-Paul, Vinny Curry, Vita Vea, Mitch Unrein, Carlton Davis and M.J. Stewart and all the Bucs’ talented newcomers are going to make the trip to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in Week 1, too.
Simply put, the Bucs will circle the wagons around Fitzpatrick, and are much better equipped to handle life without Winston for three games right now than they were a year ago when the team’s starting QB suffered a shoulder injury that caused him to miss a trio of contests from Week 9-11 and parts of games at Arizona (Week 6) and New Orleans (Week 9), too.
I’m not putting a lot of stock into the fact that Fitzpatrick was 2-1 as a starter last year as it relates to this situation this year, other than to say that Fitz has proven he can get the ball to Evans, Brate, Howard, DeSean Jackson, Chris Godwin and Adam Humphries in game situations, and score a pair of wins in red and pewter.
He’s done it. Koetter believes in him, and so do his Tampa Bay teammates. That’s a great starting point.
No, the Saints aren’t the Falcons – they’re better.
And the Eagles certainly aren’t the Jets – they’re much better.
And for sure, the Steelers aren’t the Dolphins – they too are a much better team.
This isn’t going to be Fitzpatrick versus the Saints, Eagles and Steelers. It’s going to take a total team effort to avoid the 0-3 start that many of you have already penciled in for your Buccaneers, and I’m hear to tell you that this is more of a total team with all of the offseason additions, and the fact that guys like Howard, free safety Justin Evans and Godwin, the Saints-slayer, have more experience under their collective belts.
I saw an interesting stat last night on Twitter that I’ll borrow for this column. The Buccaneers’ first three games of the 2018 season are the toughest first three games of a season for any team in the Super Bowl era, based on their opponents’ records in the previous season:
Week 1 at Saints (11-5)
Week 2 vs. Eagles (13-3)
Week 3 vs. Steelers (13-3)
What a challenge – yet what an opportunity for these young, down and out, Winston-less Bucs to make a statement in the month of September.
Yes, the Bucs are going to be underdogs without Winston in the first three games of the season, but chances are, Tampa Bay would have been underdogs playing at New Orleans in Week 1, against Super Bowl champion Philadelphia at home in Week 2 and against Pittsburgh on Monday Night Football at home in Week 3 even with Winston under center.
Allen and Curry might as well bring some of their “underdog masks” from their time in Philly last year on the short flight across the Gulf of Mexico just to help set the mood in Week 1.
Speaking of New Orleans, remember that the Saints started the season 0-2 last year before catching fire and finishing 11-5 and on top of the NFC South. Overcoming a 0-2 start can be done. It’s not Mission Impossible – and I’m not necessarily convinced that the Bucs will start 0-2 right now.
Not having Winston will undoubtedly put more pressure on Koetter, offensive coordinator Todd Monken and defensive coordinator Mike Smith at the start of the 2018 campaign, and to that I say, “Good.”
In what looks like a make-or-break year for the Koetter regime, it’s good that this staff might truly have to step up and out-coach the other sideline in order to win in September without the team’s star quarterback. I want to see better red zone play calls and clock management, don’t you? I want to see better use of defensive personnel and more aggressive play-calls, don’t you?
Go ahead, Dirk. Out-game-plan Sean Payton. Out-smart Doug Pederson. Out-strategize Mike Tomlin. You’ve got enough time to plan, plot and scheme in July and August.
Take a step closer to Jon Gruden and Tony Dungy and a step further away from Lovie Smith, Greg Schiano and Raheem Morris in the process, Dirk.
For you Bucs fans looking for a silver lining in Thursday’s bad news, Winston’s three-game absence this year is planned. Koetter and Monken have all of training camp and the preseason to prepare Fitzpatrick and the offense for New Orleans. This isn’t like the Arizona game last year when Fitz came off the bench cold and had to warm up after not playing a snap in the first four games, and then coming off the bench cold again three weeks later at New Orleans when Winston re-injured his throwing shoulder.
Fitzpatrick saw action in five games in 2017, including three starts, and completed 96-of-163 (58.9 percent) passes for 1,103 yards with seven touchdowns, three interceptions and an 86 QB rating. Not bad for a 35-year old backup QB.
With an array of weapons all around him, including some speed in the backfield with RoJo, all Fitzpatrick has to do is play point guard for three games and simply distribute the ball and avoid turnovers.
Don’t make mistakes. Don’t take chances. Basically, don’t beat yourself, Fitz.
Scramble if you must, Fitz. You carried the ball 15 times for 78 yards (5.2 avg.) yards last year, which proved to be effective. Pick up a first down or two every game with your legs to avoid taking a chance on third down with a risky pass. Keep the chains moving. Don’t turn the ball over.
To create a little confusion, I’m having Fitzpatrick sling it all over the field in the preseason if I’m Koetter. I’m running four-wide receiver packages like crazy and I’m lulling the Saints into thinking that the Bucs offense is going to be wide-open.
Then in Week 1, the game plan suddenly turns conservative with more two-tight end sets, and the Bucs rely on an improved running game behind a revamped offensive line and retooled defensive line that is expected to be stouter against the run and more dangerous against the pass. Koetter needs to turn back the clock, channel Dungy for a few games, and play some old “Buc Ball” in September.
Play conservative. Fewer risky deep passes trying to get explosive plays, and more handoffs to Barber and Jones.
We all know that the likes of Evans, Brate and Co. can catch the ball, and that Winston can sling it when he’s on the field and healthy.
Make the Bucs offensive line have to consistently run the ball to win. Put the pressure on Tampa Bay’s defense to have to wear the Superman cape starting in Week 1.
Winning in New Orleans will come far easier for Tampa Bay if the score is 21-17 in their favor. Remember, the Bucs beat the Saints, 16-11, at Raymond James Stadium in 2016. Tampa Bay won in New Orleans, 26-19, at the Superdome in Week 2 of the 2015 season.
The key is holding Drew Brees and the dangerous Saints offense to less than 20 points, and that is accomplished by keeping Brees on the sidelines with a potent ground game, and three-and-outs and takeaways by an improved Bucs defense.
Win like the Bucs did against the Jets last year, 15-10.
Just win a game or two until Winston returns –avoid a 0-3 start.
Make the worst thing imaginable – a three-game suspension for Winston to start the season – a rallying cry and make it the best thing that could have happened for this year’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers team in hindsight.
It can be done. This season isn’t over yet.
It hasn’t even begun.
Call me crazy, but I don’t think this Buccaneers team starts 0-3 without Winston.