Part one of our three-part Buccaneers preview
Football seasons often come down to a number of breaks, bounces, and other strokes of luck one way or the other. For good teams and for bad ones, there are typically a number of moments that helped guide a team in whatever direction they are headed.
Consider the 2001 New England Patriots. An early injury to Drew Bledsoe gave Tom Brady the opportunity to prove himself. An overturned call in the divisional round of the playoffs gave Adam Vinatieri a season-saving field goal opportunity in a blizzard. The Rams leaving just enough time on the clock at the end of Super Bowl XXXVI gave the Patriots one more chance to go down the field. Of course New England put themselves in a position to take advantage of these things through shrewd scouting, brilliant coaching, and tenacious play, but without those breaks and bounces, their first title simply would not have been possible.
It could be said, then, that the 2001 Patriots were an example of everything breaking right. Of course, Buccaneers fans are a bit more familiar with the opposite side of that coin. The 2011 Buccaneers came in full of optimism after a shocking 10-6 season only to see the wheels come off emphatically as Josh Freeman’s career melted down and injuries to the defense made beating the Buccaneers as simple as any game on the NFL schedule could be.
This Buccaneers preview will go over both of the extremes, largely because this team in particular has a wide range of possible outcomes. The Bucs are loaded with variables, and things that could change the organization drastically for the better or the worse.
What follows is Tampa Bay’s worst-case scenario. If you have looked at some of the more extreme NFL power rankings and wondered how somebody could have the Buccaneers last in the league, what follows is a possible worst-case scenario for the Buccaneers on the football field.
The suspension makes a tough schedule worse
Pessimism regarding the Bucs starts firmly with the three game suspension Jameis Winston is currently serving. The team’s starting quarterback cannot be with the organization in any official capacity until the end of week three, a stretch during which the Buccaneers play the New Orleans Saints, the defending champion Eagles, and the perennial contender Pittsburgh Steelers. Even with a full roster, the Buccaneers would be considered large underdogs in each of those games. For the purposes of imagining the worst on the field, the Buccaneers would go 0-3 in this scenario.
Winston is scheduled to come back in week four, but because the Buccaneers have their bye week directly after that, there is no guarantee that the Florida State product starts against the Bears. If he does, he’ll face a defense that just went to great lengths to add linebacker Khalil Mack and stands ready to give Winston a harsh welcome back.
The offensive line shows no improvement
This is where the offensive line comes in. The Buccaneers did go out and sign Ryan Jensen over the offseason to stabilize the center position, and when healthy Donovan Smith has been the team’s best blocker for some time now. However, the unit was a sore point in 2017 and will be under extreme pressure to perform in 2018. A fan does not have to work hard to draw a line between most of the negative aspects of the 2017 Buccaneers’ offense and an inconsistent group up front. That line was partially responsible for the team’s ineptitude on the ground last year, and free defenders in the backfield cannot possibly have helped Jameis Winston make the most sound football decisions.
After a number of injuries to the line during training camp and preseason, the Buccaneers look to be healthy up front in week one. At this point on Wednesday morning, Donovan Smith looks to be ready, though of course in NFL injury reports there is a lot that can change from Wednesday to Sunday.
More than luck, bounces, and other breaks could ever influence a team, this offensive line will determine the Buccaneers’ fate. If they fail to protect for the quarterback, the team’s wealth of talented passing targets will be wasted in a flurry of rushed throws to the first or second look. What could and probably should be the team’s offensive strength—having at least four quality pass targets on every single attempt—relies heavily on pass protection.
The Bucs don’t run
Likewise, the running game is often a product of a team’s run blocking. While Doug Martin played his way out of town last year, he and the team’s various other running backs were not helped by having to frequently dodge defenders in the backfield.
The preseason, for what little it will ever matter, did not show a lot of improvement in the run blocking department. Peyton Barber had some moderately positive moments, but rookie Ronald Jones was never able to get going.
The Buccaneers need to find a consistent running game in 2018 for this season to be anywhere close to successful. Expect Jones, Barber, and Jacquizz Rodgers to split carries throughout the season in hopes one of them will emerge as an offensive threat.
Those three backs will likely need to be on their games in short-yardage situations, as the Buccaneers spent their practice time to that end running the football up the middle. Those little plays keep drives going and put the game in the hands of the offense rather than the foot of a placekicker.
Chandler Catanzaro will be the Buccaneers’ fourth placekicker in three years. He has had some great NFL moments already in his career, but in his short time with the Buccaneers he has inspired something less than supreme confidence.
With an entire fanbase getting nervous when the kicking unit comes out, Catanzaro missed his very first extra point attempt in this preseason. The man who won the job because Patrick Murray lacks distance, Nick Folk lost his way, and Roberto Aguayo proved he can only perform when people are doing the Tomahawk Chop around him will loom large in 2018.
Tampa Bay has, for the last two seasons, ranked around the middle of the league in terms of field goal attempts. The Bucs average 32.5 FGA per season over that stretch, which is pretty close to the league average. Quick math will tell you that’s just under 100 points up for grabs every season, about six per game.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers played nine games in 2017 that were decided by six points or fewer. The Bucs went 2-7 in those games.
Defensive depth woes
While the defense itself is unlikely to be a strength for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, nobody would dispute that the best players on that defense are as good as they come. Lavonte David is nothing short of excellent, statistically even living up to the lofty Derrick Brooks comparison he had on Draft Day. Gerald McCoy has done everything the Buccaneers have asked of him. Kwon Alexander has been a pleasant surprise. People are excited to see a healthy Vita Vea when that becomes a possibility.
Outside of the stars, however, there are some serious questions about the Buccaneers’ defense. The secondary in particular looks very thin, a dangerous thing to say in a league increasingly dominated by innovations in the forward pass. Vernon Hargreaves III will have to make a leap forward in his NFL career, and rookies M.J. Stewart and Carlton Davis will need to play sizable roles in one of the toughest NFL positions to learn.
Consider how many of the league’s fastest players and biggest stars play receiver. Good offenses move their receivers around, making it difficult for one guy to shut that person down. With all due respect to some great wideouts in the ACC and SEC, these targets will be faster and more talented than anybody Stewart and Davis have ever played against before.
This secondary is what people worry about when they worry about the Buccaneers’ schedule. It’s not just that a lot of good NFL teams play the Bucs this year, but that those teams have some of the league’s best passing attacks.
The wheels finally just fall off
Teams can have bad years without things going absolutely down the drain, but if the Buccaneers get off to a bad start this is a thing that could just snowball.
In this scenario, Tampa Bay starts 0-4 and goes into the bye week winless. Should that happen, everybody in the organization who wears a collar and isn’t named Glazer would be on the hot seat. This is not an organization that has demonstrated great patience with coaches and front offices since 2008. With even the fanbase to some degree split on the quarterback and team centerpiece, and with a team that just took a step backward, it is not hard to imagine that another bad season would mean the end of Dirk Koetter’s tenure in Tampa Bay, along with his coaching staff, and likely along with general manager Jason Licht.
If, as the narratives would tell you, this is truly Jameis Winston’s last chance, what are the odds that any football team would give a GM a second high draft pick to spend on a quarterback?
That is to say, if this team fails, there will likely be a cleaning of the house. Moving companies in Greater Tampa would be put to work. If the 0-4 looks bad enough, Koetter might be lucky to make it out of the bye week.
With hot seats and coaching instability, chaos comes into the locker room. Suddenly it’s 2011 all over again, the QB of the future going up in flames before thousands of fans with a lame duck coach looking on and players half-way out the door.
For the remainder of the season, the Bucs look downright angry to be at work. Bad becomes worse. Suddenly the Bengals are less miserable than they look, and Baker Mayfield’s the real deal, and the paper bags come out.
A disappointing call here.
A missed kick there.
Eli Manning doing to the Bucs what Manning brothers have always done to the Bucs.
“Just how retired is Tony Dungy, really?”
Bad football is a momentum all its own. It starts out directionless, then it tries to rekindle outdated ideas, and before long it seems that a team doesn’t know how to avoid playing terrible football every week.
Tampa Bay cruises toward the first overall draft pick in a draft in what may be a particularly light quarterback class. They lose their way into that nervous draft situation, where there are potential franchise guys but no consensus number one. A new coach and new GM inherit that.
Worst-case record: 1-15
Coming Thursday: The best-case scenario, or, what if everybody’s wrong?