After 3 years of playoffs and headlines, will the Bucs step backward?

MINNEAPOLIS — Welcome to 2018. Or is it 2013?

Either way, the pall is the same. Once again, the Bucs have a new quarterback with a familiar chip on his shoulder. They have a rebuilt, and unproven, offensive line. And a head coach trying to stay one step ahead of the villagers and pitchforks.

If the plot sounds familiar, it’s because you’ve lived it a dozen times before. From Raheem Morris to Greg Schiano to Lovie Smith to Dirk Koetter. From Jeff Garcia to Josh Freeman to Mike Glennon to Josh McCown. From 3-13 to 7-9 and all points in between.

Yes, friends, after three years of Tom Brady and social media notoriety, irrelevance is threatening to return to Tampa Bay.

It’s not inevitable, but the early reviews are less than positive. The oddsmakers in Las Vegas see 6 or 7 wins on the horizon. ESPN’s preseason rankings listed the Bucs No. 31 among 32 teams. Sports Illustrated suggests they are the worst team in the NFL’s weakest division. And those extra bleachers brought in to Raymond James Stadium to handle the overflow crowds during the Brady era? Gone.

When I started to suggest that expectations nationally were not encouraging, left tackle Tristan Wirfs politely interrupted.

“Yeah,” he said with a grin beginning to spread across his face, “screw ‘em.”

OK, let’s go with that. Beginning this weekend against the Vikings, the Bucs will have the opportunity to shock an awful lot of people around the NFL.

Quarterback Baker Mayfield can surprise all the critics who thought he underperformed in Cleveland after being the No. 1 selection in the 2018 draft. Todd Bowles can reverse four consecutive losing seasons as a head coach, dating back to his time with the Jets.

Devin White can demonstrate that he really is worthy of being paid among the top linebackers in the NFL. Mike Evans can prove that a massive contract for a 30-something receiver is not bad business.

Dave Canales can show that, after all of those years as an apprentice in Seattle, he really is ready to take over an offense of his own as a coordinator. Lavonte David can join that rare breed of linebacker with 30 sacks, 10 interceptions and more than 1,000 solo tackles in his career.

“There are a lot of guys on this team that were part of that Super Bowl-winning team (in 2020), a lot of veteran experience, a lot of guys who have played a lot of football,” said new guard Matt Feiler. “We may have some young guys, but that experience rubs off on them.

“We kind of have a chip on our shoulders.”

A chip can be good. A chip can be effective. As long as there’s enough talent, smarts and experience to help it along.

But the reality is, a year after being one of the oldest teams in the league, the Bucs now have one of the youngest rosters in the NFL. Nearly one-quarter of the team is rookies. On top of that, the Bucs have more dead money taking up salary cap space than any team in the league, according to the financial tracking website

That’s not necessarily a combination to inspire great expectations.

“I know how hard everyone has worked,” Wirfs explained. “All the guys that were here in the offseason put in work together. I love everyone in this locker room, and I know we all have each other’s back. So that’s all we need.”

Yes, but a more balanced offense would also help. That’s what Canales was brought in to do. Instead of relying on the quarterback for 50 passes a game, the Bucs want to keep defenses guessing with an effective running game.

And Mayfield could give the reconfigured offensive line a little help with more mobility in the pocket, along with planned bootlegs and rollouts. Chris Godwin could make a huge difference now that his knee surgery is more than a year behind him.

The secondary took some hits with offseason departures, but Jamel Dean and Carlton Davis are among the best cornerback duos in the league. White has something to prove going into his free-agent season, and Evans is still one of the best receivers around.

If you look hard enough, you can find reasons to be optimistic.

Of course, the same thing could have been said in 2019, when oddsmakers put the over/under on Bucs wins at 6.5. They went 7-9. Or in 2018, when the over/under was 6.5, and they went 5-11. Or in every season from 2008-19, when the over/under was always between 6 and 8.5, and the Bucs failed to make the playoffs every single time.

There’s a reason expectations nationally are not very high.

It’s up to the Bucs to prove them wrong.

John Romano can be reached at Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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