The Cleveland Browns of the NFC?
That title might belong to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after yet another futile season. With the Los Angeles Rams and Buffalo Bills finally breaking their respective playoff droughts last season, the Buccaneers now have the second longest streak in the NFL without playing a playoff game, trailing only the Browns.
Now the Buccaneers will enter year four of the Jameis Winston era, the final year before his salary cap will more than double. So far it’s provided plenty of optimism, but yielded little in terms of on field success. The Bucs are 20-28 since drafting Winston, and have only sniffed the playoffs once in the three seasons.
Can 2018 be the turning point for Tampa in the brutal NFC South?
There was genuine optimism in Tampa that the Bucs could finally breakthrough after a 9-7 2016, and things started pretty well in spite of losing their bye week to Hurricane Irma. Tampa opened up with a 2-2 first quarter, including a Thursday night game where the defending champion Patriots very tight in a 19-14 loss.
It was a disaster from that point. Tampa went 3-9 over their final 12 games, including a dismal 1-5 against NFC South opponents. Their only win over a division rival came on the final day of the season, where they stunned New Orleans 31-24 to knock the Saints down a seed in the playoff picture. Outside of that, there were almost no positives from the backend of Tampa’s season.
Winston became a turnover machine with 11 interceptions and four fumbles. The running game became a total disaster, with Peyton Barber leading the team in rushing at a meager 423 yards. In total Tampa finished 27th in the league in rushing yards, leaving them with a one-dimensional offense. The defense wasn’t much better, with the pass rushers crashing down to dead last in the league in sacks.
In short, nothing went right for Tampa.
In true Buccaneers fashion, they had a pretty healthy off-season on paper. They poached Vinny Curry off the Super Bowl champion Eagles to aid their dismal pass rush, and Beau Allen from the same team as a run stuffer up the gut. It’s not like the Buccaneers picked up two crucial pieces from Philadelphia’s defense in free agency, but when your defensive line is as atrocious as Tampa’s was last season, every little bit helps.
Unsurprisingly, the pass rush and running game were the two main focuses of the draft. They started things off by reaching for big defensive tackle Vita Vea with the #12 pick, and followed it up with a decent value pick in USC running back Ronald Jones II.
It seems like Tampa patched up some of their holes during the off-season, but will it stop the bleeding, or serve as just a sticking plaster?
You might think Drew Brees and the Saints or Carson Wentz’s Eagles led the NFC in passing yards last season, but that title belonged to the Bucs. Tampa finished the season with 4,366 passing yards, good for top of the NFC and fourth overall. Mike Evans finished at 1,001 receiving yards, maintaining his record of breaking 1,000 yards in every season of his career.
Adam Humphries spent a lot of time playing in the slot, and he had a career season as well last year. O.J. Howard emerged as a red zone target with six touchdowns in his rookie season. This team is dangerous for any secondary to deal with, and could become absolutely lethal if DeSean Jackson can re-establish himself as a home run threat with Winston’s deep ball.
Beyond that…it’s pretty bleak.
The issues with the running game and the pass rush have been well documented, but the issues run so much deeper in Tampa.
For starters, their strength could become a weakness for the first three weeks of the season. Jameis Winston will be serving a three game suspension to open the season, and they are three brutal games. The Bucs will have to navigate the Saints, Eagles, and Steelers with Ryan Fitzpatrick at quarterback.
Playing in a division with Drew Brees, Matt Ryan, and Cam Newton leaves an imperative need for a strong secondary, but the Bucs had anything but last season. A third year leap from Vernon Hargreaves III combined with the pair of cornerbacks they drafted will have to at least hold down the fort to keep their offense in with a chance to win every week.
Late game execution was a crucial weakness for Tampa last season as well. The Bucs lost seven games by six points or less, botching late game situations over and over.
They got the ball with just over two minutes left in a tie game against Buffalo, but Adam Humphries fumbled the contest away on the first play of the drive. Tampa had the lead late in the game at Lambeau Field before letting Brett Hundley drive down the field to tie the game, and eventually win it with another long drive in overtime.
The list goes on and on. This team cannot close games.
If Bucs fans are looking for a reason to be optimistic, it’s that they did lose a lot of tight games last year. If you turn four of those seven losses in one-possession games into wins, this is a 9-7 team. If they can win one of those games without Winston in September, they might have a chance to gain some momentum heading into the middle of the schedule with him. 8-8, third in the NFC South.
The NFC South is undoubtedly the best division in the NFL. Half of the NFC’s playoff teams were from the South last season. The Saints, Falcons, and Panthers could eat the Bucs alive this season. They could be facing an uphill battle from a 0-3 start, and the schedule from there looks too tough to make up that ground. 3-13, fourth in the NFC South.
I think it would have been fair to expect some improvement in the final record before the Winston suspension, but that’s a killer. This team will probably start 0-3, and from there’s the road back is going to be too far with five NFC South games to play even with Winston. I think they’ll be better, but the record won’t reflect it much. 6-10, fourth in the NFC South.