Shutdown Corner is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per day in reverse order of our initial 2015 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 8, the day before the preseason begins with the Hall of Fame Game in Canton.
NO. 28: TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS
I'm not sure why the Tampa Bay Buccaneers tanking in Week 17 last season didn't become a bigger story.
The NFL made a really big deal about the integrity of the game when it came to deflated footballs with another team, but nobody said much about the Buccaneers trying to lose a game. What Tampa Bay did was arguably a worse transgression.
Receiver Mike Evans and linebacker Lavonte David, two of the team's top three players along with defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, were healthy scratches in the second half. McCoy was already on injured reserve with a knee injury. Receiver Vincent Jackson was taken out, and the Buccaneers yanked three starters on the offensive line, according to NFL.com. Quarterback Josh McCown was 12-20 for 106 yards in the first half. He didn't attempt a pass in the third quarter, and went 2-of-3 for 9 yards in the fourth quarter without his best receivers on the field. The Saints had the 25th ranked pass defense in the NFL last season. A pivotal moment came with less than six minutes left and the Buccaneers leading 20-14. McCown threw not to Evans or Jackson, who were benched, but to Tavarres King, who had never caught an NFL pass before Week 17. King had the pass go through his arms and the Saints picked it off, and seven plays later New Orleans' offense scored a touchdown to take the lead.
The Buccaneers said they didn't tank, so everyone shrugged and moved on. There was no 243-page Wells Report on it, although it was pretty obvious what happened and that was not exactly in line with the integrity of the game.
“I mean it didn’t sit well with me, I’ll be honest,” nose tackle Akeem Spence said after the game to Pewter Report. “But at the same time, it wasn’t my decision to make. It was a decision that came from up top so therefore… I mean I’m going to play with the guys that are out there."
But everyone apparently agreed to never mention it again. The Buccaneers got the first overall pick, and the consensus top player in Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston. The difference between winning that Week 17 game and losing it could alter the future of the franchise. Since the NFL apparently doesn't care about tanking, it's hard to argue with the results.
Whatever the Bucs had to do to get to this point, they’re here: A team that was far more talented than its record landed the top quarterback in the draft. Blowing that second half against the Saints will benefit the franchise for a long time.
What will Winston do as a rookie? He is better prepared than many quarterbacks coming out of college because Florida State runs a fairly pro-style offense. Winston has two huge receivers to throw to, Evans and Jackson, and a big tight end in Austin Seferian-Jenkins. Winston likes to take chances, and that will cost the Buccaneers some turnovers. His big receivers will also make plenty of plays on those throws. Winston won't be scared to turn it loose and throw it to them.
The Buccaneers were really bad in close games, or unlucky if you believe that close games in the NFL should even out over time (and for the most part, I do). They were 1-8 in games decided by a touchdown or less, though that includes the Saints finale they tried to lose. That won't repeat. Better quarterback play would help, too. McCown parlayed a good five starts with the Chicago Bears in 2013 into a nice deal with the Bucs, and the Bucs continued to use him all season even though second-year quarterback Mike Glennon was a better player and the Bucs could have evaluated him for the future. I think that was just inexcusable coaching and not tanking, but it was such a weird decision I can't be sure. It's hard to imagine that Winston won't be an upgrade though, even with some rookie mistakes.
The Buccaneers were a combination of bad and unlucky, with inferior quarterback play last season. Those things could turn around in a hurry, assuming the Bucs try to win all their games. There is way too much blue-chip talent on the roster to go 2-14 again, but there were obviously some deficiencies that coach Lovie Smith needs to fix.
2014 review in less than 25 words: The Buccaneers were strangely bad, going 2-14. They lost games in just about every way conceivable. Not Lovie’s best work.
Is the roster better, worse or about the same?: There are two ways to look at it. They got Winston, and any team landing a player it thinks can be a franchise player had a huge win in the offseason. But the rest of the offseason wasn’t much to get excited about. Maybe split the difference and say it’s about the same.
Best offseason acquisition: Clearly it’s Winston. But to change it up, we’ll acknowledge linebacker Bruce Carter. Carter played better at the end of last season for the Dallas Cowboys, and the talent has always been there. If he’s putting it all together, maybe the Buccaneers invested at just the right time.
Achilles heel: Where will the pass rush come from? Michael Johnson was supposed to provide it, but he was added to a alarming list of Tampa Bay big-name free agents cut after one year. Adrian Clayborn, a capable end, is gone too. The Buccaneers hope Jacquies Smith and George Johnson, signed from the Detroit Lions, continue to build on promising 2014 seasons. If they don’t, there’s too much pressure on McCoy to get the pressure from the middle.
Position in flux: There were reports this offseason that Charles Sims would get a chance to be Tampa Bay’s featured back in his second season, but there would be a lot of blind faith behind that move because Sims didn’t do a ton as a rookie. He averaged 2.8 yards on 66 carries. Then there were reports that new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter liked Doug Martin, whose great rookie year seems like decades ago. Maybe one of them takes the job and produces at an above-average level.
Ready to break out: Seferian-Jenkins was considered a top talent in the 2014 draft, but injuries held him back last season. He played in nine games and had 221 yards. He's way better than that, and if the old adage that rookie quarterbacks lean on tight ends applies to Winston, Seferian-Jenkins might have a nice breakout season.
Stat fact: The Buccaneers had a 75.2 quarterback rating last season, the fifth worst mark in the NFL (Jets, Raiders, Browns and Jaguars were the bottom four). Even if Winston isn't great as a rookie, he doesn't have to do much to match what McCown and Glennon did last year.
Schedule degree of difficulty: It’s not too bad in the NFC South, which last season was just the second division in NFL history to produce a champion with a losing record. Then add the AFC South as the schedule partner from the other conference, and there are winnable games on the schedule.
This team’s best-case scenario for the 2014 season: Not too long ago, it was impossible to project a rookie quarterback would have a real positive impact. After seeing a few rookie quarterbacks play well in recent years, the Buccaneers can at least hope for a good season from Winston right away. If the running game helps out, the defense can rush the quarterback and the Bucs find good safety play, things could turn around fast. The talent is there, and if that 1-8 record in close games regresses to somewhere around .500 or even better, everyone will rave about the Bucs' improvement.
And here’s the nightmare scenario: How about a repeat of last year, where head-scratching coaching moves, bad quarterback play behind a terrible offensive line and less than stellar luck put the Buccaneers in the running for the first pick again? This doesn’t seem like an organization you can just blindly trust to turn things around, so an improvement isn’t guaranteed.
The crystal ball says: The Buccaneers can stick around in the NFC South race for a while because, well, it’s the NFC South. There’s some good talent on this team. But there was clearly something missing last year and that won’t solve itself overnight. Winston will be fine but will have his rookie moments, and we’ll all wonder again why the Buccaneers’ bad record doesn’t fit the talent level on the roster.
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