The Tampa Bay Buccaneers went 6-10 last season. In fact, they’re 23-57 over their last five seasons, which, needless to say, is pretty terrible.
And yet, there is hope. Yes, the Bucs are one of a handful of NFL teams that haven’t made the playoffs in awhile that enter the season with high expectations.
But are those expectations legitimate? Do they exist for good reason?
“Yes, because you look at their quarterback,” former Bucs All-Pro and Super Bowl champion Ronde Barber said on CBS Sports Radio’s Tiki and Tierney. “It’s that simple. He threw for 4,000 yards last year (and) had 22 touchdowns. He made some mistakes, but he proved to be the real deal as a rookie. I think going into last year, there was a lot of questions about Jameis Winston – some off, some on the field. And I’m telling you: The guy is the real deal. In every aspect of quarterbacking, the guy is the real deal.”
Winston also didn’t play baseball this spring, as he normally would for Florida State.
“This was his first real offseason, and you could see the improvement in his game,” Barber said. “So if you’re looking for just a broad assessment of why people are optimistic about Tampa, it’s because of Jameis Winston.”
As promising as Winston seems, though, the Bucs have plenty of other reasons to be excited. You don’t go from two wins in 2014 to playoff darlings in 2016 just because of a second-year quarterback. No, the Bucs have loads of talent on both sides of the ball.
“For the second year in a row, this front office has identified some great talent and drafted them and have not been scared to pull the trigger on some guys,” Barber said. “Noah Spence comes to mind. Obviously Vernon Hargreaves, the first pick, I think he’’s been spectacular in the preseason. But you draft Noah Spence in the second round, who, if you ask any scout out there, take away his off-field concerns, he was a first-round talent and he’s shown that so far this preseason. Of course we have a question mark with the kicker (Robert Aguayo) who started off bad, but he’s been 8-for-his-last-8 and booted everything else out of the end zone since his slow start. So they’ve made a lot of progress. They made a lot of additions.”
That includes defensive end Robert Ayers. The former first-round pick signed a three-year, $21 million deal in March.
“He has galvanized the defense and brought an attitude they didn’t have,” Barber said of the former Bronco and Giant. “You just got to be encouraged by the type of players and personnel this team has brought in.”
Of course, it also helps that Doug Martin returned to form. The 27-year-old burst onto the scene in 2012 and had 1,900+ total yards and 12 touchdowns. Then he had two subpar seasons before rushing for 1,402 yards last year – second only to Adrian Peterson.
“He had a burst and an anergy in his step that I haven’t seen since my last year in 2012,” Barber said. “Doug got right last year. A lot of it was injuries, but a lot of it was commitment. Last year when he came into camp, his body changed. He looked different physically. You know he put the work in, and it showed on the field. This year you look at him, he looks even better. He didn’t get a lot of reps in the preseason, but in practice, his quickness, his short-space suddenness is there.”
All that said, the best that Tampa can hope for this year is a Wild Card – that’s what happens when you share a division with the Panthers – and even that is no guarantee in the NFC South.
“I would say top to bottom, we have a very good collection of quarterbacks obviously,” Barber said. “Drew Brees, Cam Newton, Matt Ryan, Jameis Winston coming on, but whether that puts us in the category of we’re going to get a Wild Card team, I don’t know. I would think that it could be Tampa. The Saints have a lot of questions. I know that they’ve struggled on defense. . . . I’m a personnel guy. If I see the right personnel, I believe the team can be successful no matter what the scheme is. When you look at Atlanta, it’s the same thing. They’re young on defense and they still really haven’t identified a pass rusher. You can’t survive in this league without a pass rusher. You simply cannot do it. So the other side of the ball on both of those teams, you know they have the ability to put up points. But you have to be able to play defense in the NFC South, and right now, Carolina and Tampa are the two that have had the strongest offseasons and preseasons. If Tampa is able to make the jump to 9-7, maybe sneak a 10-6 season in there, they could get it. But that’s pushing it, if you ask me.”