On New Year’s Eve, Cycle of Buccaneers Football Begins Anew

Surprising win over the Saints will fuel renewed hype next season

Since about 2011, Buccaneers seasons have followed similar beats.

Coming into the season, hype is in clear abundance as fans, analysts, and gamblers alike become excited about Tampa Bay building off their promising players. The logic varies, but the message is always the same: The Bucs showed something in December that indicates that they could be scary in the next season.

From there, hype begets an increased set of expectations. Those glimmers of hope become signs of a thing to come. Optimism builds, especially just after the draft, when every rookie is about to take the world by storm and every coaching scheme looks great. Superlatives are in surplus.

By August, the Bucs are penciled in as a potential playoff team. Typically, that’s where reality kicks in.

Every year, it’s theorized that the cycle will break at the end of the season. Every year, people suggest the fans will give up. Every year, people suggest they won’t get fooled again by the Bucs.

Well, here comes the new boss. You know how the song goes.

With a shock win over the New Orleans Saints care of a last minute touchdown pass from Jameis Winston to Chris Godwin, and a final three weeks where the Buccaneers clearly and emphatically rallied around seemingly embattled coach Dirk Koetter, the Buccaneers have finished the season with another glimmer of what they could be with the right moves and the right breaks.

The final memory will inevitably be replayed in Bucs fans’ heads for months. Winston dropping back, throwing toward the sideline to his right, hitting Chris Godwin inside the five, and then Godwin going in for his first career touchdown is the exact kind of moment that could rekindle all the hype as though the 2017 season didn’t happen.

The case for the 2018 Bucs is already starting to take shape.

“They rallied around Dirk Koetter! Jameis Winston played like a really good quarterback when healthy! Chris Godwin’s coming along! The Bucs lost a lot of close, toss-up kind of games!”

None of that is untrue. The team certainly did rally around their coach in the closing weeks of the season, so much so that it may have saved Koetter’s job. That’s to the players’ credit, and to Koetter’s. Look around the NFL and you’ll see quickly that teams playing hard for coaches at the helm of disappointing teams simply isn’t the norm these days. Because of that fact, we’re due for a New Year’s Day in which a potential record number of coaches find themselves out of a job.

Winston did play better in December. Of course, he also threw three ill-advised interceptions on Sunday, including a pick in the end zone that could be best described as a gift for the Saints. The game-winning drive shows his tremendous potential, but the rest of the game showed that he also has a potential for disaster.

Chris Godwin scoring his first touchdown as a professional will certainly be something for the rookie to build on coming into next season. Passing targets are one area where the Buccaneers are seemingly set moving forward, which as many as five regular targets that can do damage from game to game.

The case could be made that offensive line play derailed a lot of what the Bucs wanted to do in 2017. With better blockers, the logic goes, Tampa Bay would have a better running game by default. Jameis Winston would also benefit, given enough time to let plays develop rather than feeling the need to force something up out of desperation. With just a little blocking, the offense could start to click consistently and set the tone for an improving future.

Now, to pump the brakes just a little, consider that the Saints made some unforced errors on Sunday without which the Bucs’ comeback would have been impossible. Most notably, New Orleans continued to pass the football in their final drive, keeping the clock stalled through incompletions and plays that ended out of bounds. Tampa Bay received the ball just inside the two minute warning, but with more attention to the clock New Orleans could have just run the game out.   This is after they got lucky that Drew Brees was given a sack on third down even though he tried to throw the ball in the process that fell incomplete.

The Saints were the first winning team the Buccaneers defeated on the season. Their four other wins came against the Bears, the two New York teams, and the Dolphins in a rescheduled game. Two of those games were decided by one score.

Tampa Bay will come into the offseason with a lot of questions and a long workload. Jason Licht and Dirk Koetter are coming back, but the rest of the staff’s status is unclear. Mike Smith might be under consideration for head coaching positions, or he could simply be fired. The Buccaneers’ special teams have been an extremely mixed bag with plenty of negative plays, so Special Teams Coordinator Nate Kaczor might be in danger of losing his job as well.

Beyond the coaching staff, the team has some very notable holes. The offensive line needs a complete overhaul if the Buccaneers are going to successfully run the ball in 2018, regardless of who gets carries. Running back will be a question mark, with some potential solutions in-house but some reason to believe the Bucs might look outward. The defensive line needs lots of work as well, with edge rushers being a must and depth at defensive tackle having proven important throughout the year. The secondary will also need to be evaluated with some difficult questions.

The core players need to develop as well. Mike Evans has proven a physical force and his receiving yardage speaks for itself, but Evans is also sometimes prone to dropping the football and derailing his offense’s progress. Jameis Winston is the man in the middle of this team, but his decision-making needs to improve, lest he spend his entire career trying to perform a trick that can only ever be pulled off by Brett Favre.

There is also an elephant in the middle of the Uber that the Buccaneers cannot forget about: An ongoing investigation into Jameis Winston’s behavior one night in Arizona in a hired car. That could amount to nothing at all, or it could put the Buccaneers in a position that only the New England Patriots have shown the ability to overcome in recent NFL history.

Should the defense find itself coached by a new person, the players will have to adapt to a new scheme, possibly one far removed from the defense Mike Smith has been running in Tampa. They’ll also have to come together as a unit, which might be problematic given how much turnover the defense is likely to see between seasons.

This puts a lot of pressure on Jason Licht, who comes into this offseason with a large shopping list. Licht has had plenty of successful moves as the Buccaneers’ GM, but his misses can be a bit loud. Roberto Aguayo comes to mind. Tampa Bay can ill afford to play games with draft picks in 2018, and they cannot miss on a free agent if they want to be anywhere close to contention next season.

Dirk Koetter fields questions after the Buccaneers’ 31-24 win over the Saints on New Year’s Eve 2017. (Tim Williams/Sports Talk Florida)

The hype is fun. The Buccaneers are a team that is not prone to getting much national buzz, even when the team is loaded with talent. Building a bandwagon is about the only response that the team’s fanbase could have.

It’s unclear what, if anything, hype does to an actual team, so calling it harmful would be ludicrous. Optimism isn’t going to bother players anytime soon.

Still, the reality is that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are still a long way from where they need to be. For all their skill position talent, games are so often won or lost in the trenches, where Jameis Winston and Chris Godwin can’t help. Even coming into the season, few would have called the Buccaneers’ offensive line a strength. That’s an important thing to note.

Have optimism, Bucs fans. Embrace hype when it knocks on your door. Talk yourself into a rejuvenated Winston, some consistency on the sideline, and a few new linemen on either side of the ball. Just remember when seriously evaluating your pewter pirates that they are likely to have weaknesses in 2018 the way every football team has weaknesses. Remember those weaknesses in the wrong circumstances can turn a potential playoff contender into a 5-11 team picking in the top ten of the draft.

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Tim Williams has been covering sports since his days as a student at Northeastern University covering events such as the Beanpot. In the thirteen years since, he has covered college hockey, the NFL, Major League Baseball, the PGA Tour, and the National Hockey League. A native of the Tampa Bay area, Tim has returned home after living much of his life in the northeast, including sixteen years in the Boston area. These days the Managing Editor of Sports Talk Florida can be found on Florida's golf courses when he's not working.