With all due respect to Hank Williams Jr, the Suncoast might take a hard pass
On Thursday night, the truly hardcore football fan will get friends together. Some of those friends might be rambunctious, even rowdy. Certainly anyone who would be described in that manner would be invited.
Problematically, however, they might not quite be ready for some football. They may have had enough for the time being.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Miami Dolphins open their preseasons in The Stadium Of Many Names in the Miami Area. Whether people watch it as a curiosity or to see football once again is up to them, but there will be people throughout Florida tuning in to see what happens.
The excitement that has accompanied the Buccaneers in the buildup to seasons recently is noticeably absent this season. A disappointing 2017, combined with an offseason that saw quarterback Jameis Winston suspended for the first three games of the upcoming season, just seemed to take all the air out of fans’ sails.
Pessimism abounds. The Buccaneers’ schedule is full of teams that give people far more cause for optimism than the Bucs do, and also the Cleveland Browns. National outlets, for whom the Bucs were a trendy “sleeper” pick just a year ago, have a dim view of the team and their future. Indeed, it is relatively rare to encounter somebody who is picking the Buccaneers to have a winning season, let alone making the playoff run many were predicting in 2017.
When people ask “what do you think of the Bucs this year,” they tend to be wincing when they say it, bracing themselves for another prediction of coming doom. Such projections are not hard to find, and what is considered optimism might vary from person to person. Where some were suggesting the Bucs could crank the win total up to eleven in 2017, a record approaching the treading-water mark of 8-8 could be considered optimism now.
The team addressed needs in the NFL Draft and free agency, but any optimism around that was tempered when first round pick Vita Vea strained a calf muscle. Injuries to the offensive line have made second round pick Ronald Jones a little more worrisome as well, as only Canton Material can run without blocking.
The National Forensics League
It isn’t just the Buccaneers that have the football fans of Tampa Bay a little less ready to receive all of their rowdy friends. Perhaps the last year of NFL news has just been too, well, newsy for many.
The last time the world heard good news involving football was when the city of Philadelphia miraculously survived the Eagles’ very first Super Bowl title. Some had wondered if that would be the end of the City of Brotherly Love, but it turned out that Independence Mall, Walnut Street, Manayunk and the rest of Philly powered through hordes of ecstatic Eagles fans fueled by adult beverages.
Since then, debates have raged. Debates over politics, over the very concept of patriotism, over the United States Constitution and more. This has not been good prep as we get ever closer to getting this thing started.
Consider that Tampa is as much a military town as you are going to find in the United States. MacDill casts quite the shadow, and that makes the seemingly endless discussion of the anthem, the flag, and protests hit particularly hard around the bay. A lot of people around here cannot help but take that personally, regardless of how it was intended. Others might suggest that the political discourse that has taken place around all of that does not mix well with what they want out of sport. Things many wish to escape on Sundays have taken center stage, at times drowning out the actual football.
Jameis Winston’s issues are part of the NFL fatigue. They are also part of the fear of the real world spilling into the world of sports, with so many similar (or worse) incidents in the entertainment, business, and political worlds coming out seemingly every day. Not the NFL too, some might say.
Even the Hall of Fame isn’t free of controversy, with far more words spent on whether Terrell Owens owes the world an apology than on how great this year’s inductees were. Like with the other major league controversy, the NFL felt a need to make a rule to make sure this never happens again, which served to just reignite the stupid discussion once more.
So the NFL is controversial, politics and other uncomfortable issues have dominated discussion around the league, sports voices are giving speeches about forcing Hall of Famers to give speeches, and the Bucs are likely to be less than stellar in 2018. Maybe all your rowdy friends would rather watch a documentary on Netflix.
What to watch for
Quarterbacks might have stolen a little too much of football’s focus in recent years, but with the Buccaneers in preseason it makes perfect sense that signal-callers would steal the show. With Jameis Winston under suspension for the first three weeks of the regular season, it will be critical to get Ryan Fitzpatrick ready to start against a brutal first three weeks.
Moreover, this puts Ryan Griffin in the second string role. This is football, after all, where injuries are not just something to guard against but something to expect. Players will get hurt, missing time throughout the season. Quarterbacks are particularly vulnerable, and Fitzpatrick is in his mid thirties. Add a banged-up offensive line to Fitzpatrick’s age, and anyone can see why it’s important that Griffin get up to football speed by week one.
Since he has been here, coach Dirk Koetter has talked up Griffin as a hard-worker. At times, his praise for Griffin is almost reminiscent of Jon Gruden’s insistence twelve years ago that Bruce Gradkowski was a diamond in the rough that teams would kick themselves for passing over. As it turned out, nobody really regretted passing on Gradkowski. As so many have pointed out, the Bucs are “one play away” from having to put Griffin out there.
The offensive line in general should be a point of scrutiny for Bucs fans optimistic and pessimistic alike. Last year, the line simply was not up to snuff, smothering any chance of Tampa Bay having a consistent running attack and causing Jameis Winston to scramble and make rushed decisions that often turned into spectacular failure. Protection in the passing and running games can make a bad team look better, and failure to protect can make a talented team look like a waste of a fan’s time. The Bucs need to be better in the trenches in 2018 if they want to improve on their 5-11 season last year.
The defensive line will be a focal point throughout 2018. Tampa Bay had the single worst pass rush in the NFL last year, struggling to put any pressure on just about any quarterback. This allowed the Buccaneers’ opponents to buy time in the pocket and pick apart a secondary that is a long way removed from the days of Ronde Barber, John Lynch, and Dexter Jackson.
Growing up, the concept of preseason football was the summer equivalent of the two minute warning. If football’s coming soon, so too is school, and the days of goofing off are coming to an end. Of course, in Florida, where schools begin opening as soon as next week, this feeling must only be intensified these days.
Summer vacation is coming to a close. Soon there will be school in session. Election ads already dominate television, and with football starting again we can easily pile the NFL on our overflowing inbox of political stuff for the bold to debate the the rest of us to avoid.
Of course, football is still the sporting juggernaut of America and with good reason. It is unquestionably part of American culture now that football is associated with the fall. People will still watch the NFL, and many Buccaneers fans will be watching Thursday night, fully prepared for at least some football, and likely at most.
It might look less like a Thursday night party and more like a nervous gathering of students about to go back to school, whether they are or not.