Part two of the Buccaneers preview looks on the bright side
Most national outlets, and even most local ones, are down on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this year.
A tough schedule is often cited, and on paper that schedule does look daunting. The NFC South remains one of the toughest divisions in football, and teams like the Bears and 49ers look more dangerous than they did last season. Even the Browns could be a tough opponent.
Jameis Winston’s suspension also looms over the team for people who foresee doom for the organization. With the Saints, Eagles, and Steelers slated to face the team during that suspension, it’s easy for people to predict the Bucs starting out 0-3 and letting bad habits in after that.
Power rankings tend to have the Buccaneers in the high twenties or low thirties, which is to say the bottom of the league. Some have them pegged as the worst team in football this year. Just about nobody is picking Tampa Bay to make a splash in the 2018 NFL season.
What if everybody’s wrong?
Every team has a best-case scenario, no matter how unlikely it may be. No, not every team can lift the Lombardi Trophy and this will not be a wide-eyed piece about how the Buccaneers could do so against all odds and logic.
The Buccaneers do have some potential, after all. Yesterday, this preview explored what could happen if bad turns to worse and the team simply falls apart. If the worst-case scenario is worth exploring, why not take a look then at what could go right?
The offensive line holds and sends the offense to a new level
Tampa Bay has three receivers they hold in high regard in Mike Evans, DeSean Jackson, and Chris Godwin. Add to that the hard-working Cameron Brate and physically intimidating O.J. Howard at tight end, and it is safe to say that pasing targets are one of the Buccaneers’ strengths.
The issue has never been the talent of the pass targets, but the amount of time required to cycle through them. With an offensive line that struggled for much of 2017, Tampa Bay rarely had the time to run the offense they might have been best with. Those rare occasions where the pass rush never came, however, showed tremendous promise.
With a little blocking, the Buccaneers’ passing attack could be really good. This will require help from Peyton Barber and Ronald Jones in the running game, but better blocking will of course help the backs as much as anyone.
Any surprise in the Buccaneers’ coming season will be on Ryan Jensen, Ali Marpet, Donovan Smith, Demar Dotson, and Caleb Benenoch. If that unit turns the corner, it’s so much more likely that the rest of the offense will follow suit.
Improved blocking would turn many Buccaneers games into offensive shootouts, and with a young and deep group of players at the skill positions that could be a good place for Tampa Bay to find itself.
Better play up front would lead to something even more important.
The Buccaneers offense finds direction
Perhaps the hardest question to answer when watching the Bucs in recent years is “what is the ideal version of the offense they are running?”
Given some time in the pocket and some room to run, the Buccaneers could answer that question in a hurry. Perhaps when Winston returns they will run an offense that resembles mid-career Brett Favre’s Green Bay Packers.
Remember, talk of this season being Jameis Winston’s last chance are entirely based on mind-reading and the creation of narrative. So too is any talk of Dirk Koetter being on the hot seat, based in history though that may be. Statistics tell a different tale than those who insist Winston has declined since his rookie season. Every year, his stats in the efficiency categories (football’s first real journey into advanced statistics) have improved.
While circumstances have made it difficult to believe, to many, that this will be a launching point for Jameis Winston, it is not impossible that the young quarterback could still make the leap.
Of course, that would only begin in week four.
Ryan Fitzpatrick is not a death sentence
For three games, Ryan Fitzpatrick will be the Buccaneers’ starter. For a lot of people, this is enough to pencil in “0-3” to Tampa Bay’s record.
Of course, there is a fair chance that the Philadelphia Eagles will not have their intended starting quarterback in week two as well.
Narratives around quarterback matchups tend to make a fair amount of assumptions, including Drew Brees once again failing to age because he has made a habit of that. Fitzpatrick is seen as a large disadvantage for the Buccaneers, but he has proven capable of big games under the right circumstances.
Preseason predictions are often based in last year’s trends. A year ago many people were saying the Saints were on the decline, now they’re viewed as a contender again. The NFC South changes drastically from year to year, is it a guarantee the Saints will come out strong in 2018? An upset in New Orleans, a battle of backups in week two, is it impossible to see the Bucs coming into week three’s Monday Night matchup with the Steelers at an unlikely 2-0?
The front seven paces the defense
While the Buccaneers’ strongest unit is by no means their defense, a lot of effort on improving the defensive line gives them a new look. With Vinny Curry and Jason Pierre-Paul in the mix, and with first round draft pick Vita Vea hoping to return soon from a calf strain that sidelined him for just about the entire preseason, Gerald McCoy will have more help than ever before up front. This should allow the Buccaneers to rush passers and create hurried throws. The secondary is very much a point of concern, but if the opposing quarterback rarely has the time to set and throw a solid pass that might not matter all that much.
The Buccaneers’ front seven could make up for the secondary’s perceived lackings. In addition to the defensive line, linebackers Lavonte David and Kwon Alexander have been the best defensive players on the Tampa Bay roster since they were first penciled in. Better pass rushes will give defensive coordinator Mike Smith the opportunity to use these linebackers in more ways, and the more ways the team can utilize Lavonte David the better off they will be for it.
Today is the part of the preview where thinking optimistically is a must, so in this scenario the defense would only have to hold so much. Should the Bucs’ offense rise to a new level, the defense will simply have to spot it a couple of stops to get through most weeks.
Luck gets involved
Every football team, to some degree, encounters moments of good or bad luck. A 50/50 call doesn’t quite go their way on review, and it ends up being the difference in the game. Bad luck. A punt takes a funny bounce, hits a player on the receiving team in the back, and becomes a game-changing turnover. Good luck.
In today’s scenario, the Buccaneers would get every break they could. This would include either Carson Wentz being unavailable in week two, or playing and coming out extremely rusty. If one of their division opponents is worse than expected, that would add to their positive luck.
Maybe last year’s woeful Giants become this year’s woeful Giants featuring a good running back. Maybe Jimmy Garoppolo doesn’t win MVP and instantly become the new big star in the NFL the way some people seem to be predicting. Maybe the Washington Redskins are just awful. Maybe the Bengals make the Redskins look like champs. Maybe the AFC North in general is just not very good.
All the narratives are wrong
The Buccaneers undoubtedly play some tough teams in 2018, but calling that schedule a brutal gauntlet is taking things a bit far. This is a schedule that features both teams headquartered in Ohio, two NFC East teams in New York and Washington with serious questions, the enigmatic Panthers twice, and a 49ers team that looked good for a month and is now being penciled in as the Next Big Thing.
Funny thing about the Next Big Thing, that was a title that these Bucs came into recent seasons carrying. They’re going to make the playoffs, they’re going to be great for years, this is the beginning of something big. Those Buccaneers, of course, went 5-11. Narratives pick a few teams every year, and those narratives often miss important stuff.
The Jacksonville Jaguars were not a trendy playoff pick in 2017, but they nearly made the Super Bowl on the strength of a defense nobody saw coming until it was already there.
NFL momentum goes the Bucs’ way
Once a team starts losing, it’s hard for them to stop. Likewise, once a team starts winning, they tend to develop a taste for it. This is the classic case of making one’s own luck.
With a little luck and a few things going Tampa Bay’s way, they could head into games they’re very much supposed to lose with a sort of confidence against all odds. An upset later and they become a team that can knock off anybody at any time, and a team to watch. The last time the Buccaneers saw this was 2010, where a string of comeback victories made a weak team on paper look much better than its individual parts.
In this rose-colored scenario, Tampa Bay would win its first two games against an off-rhythm Saints team and a Philadelphia squad not quite at 100%. The Bucs would then defeat Chicago in Winston’s first game back, heading into their bye at 3-1. Coming into November, Tampa Bay is a stunning 5-2, and they come into Thanksgiving still in the hunt for January at 7-4. Those Bucs split two home games with the Panthers and Saints before going on the road to dispatch a disappointing Ravens squad.
Coming into the final two games, the best-case Bucs are 9-5 and right in the mix for the NFC South title. They earn their way into the playoffs with a win in Dallas over a Cowboys team on the brink, and finish second in the South after losing to Atlanta to finish the season. A first-round playoff exit on the road would not be a perfect season for a lot of teams, but it’s about the best the Bucs can get, and would stabilize the team for the time being.
Best-case scenario: 10-6, first round exit