Once upon a time, the Buccaneers were a favorite sleeper pick for the playoffs. With a restocked offense to surround Jameis Winston and a well-planned 2017 draft class in tow, the Buccaneers were expected to make the leap. DeSean Jackson and O.J. Howard being added to a core that included Mike Evans, Cameron Brate, and Doug Martin was supposed to be too much to handle for opposing defenses.
Yet, here we are a year later and the story has come full circle. After a 5-11 flop due to shortcomings on both sides of the ball, the media is hyping up Tampa Bay again due to the expected development of young prospects such as Howard and Chris Godwin. With Vita Vea and Ronald Jones headlining another highly-acclaimed draft class, Dirk Koetter’s team HAS to come alive this year, right? Sadly, Bucs fans might need to brace themselves for another failed takeoff.
It all starts and ends with the reliably unreliable quarterback, Jameis Winston. The former first overall pick has always had all the talent in the world in order to succeed. Even when character issues plagued the young gunslinger leading up to the 2015 NFL Draft, he was seen as a passer that had all the tools to succeed on the field, and a no-brainer first overall pick. While it takes time for most quarterbacks to settle into the pro leagues, Winston was expected to find comfort rather quickly. Through the first years of his career, it seemed like an ordinary case of a trigger-happy young-un making a few bad reads. However, a few offensive weapons and years later, Jameis’ inconsistencies still continue. Despite the troubles - which include inaccuracy, decision-making, and lack of leadership - the media continues to heil the former national champ as a star in the making. The quarterback now is entering his fourth year, and the media is running out of people to point their fingers at.
Let’s be real here, Winston should be further along in his career at this point. Talent has never been a question for the troubled QB. This is the kid that went undefeated and won the National Championship over Auburn in his freshman year. Going from a perennial contender like the Seminoles to a talent-deprived Buccaneers team was not expected to be an easy adjustment for the then-rookie. Winston performed pretty much to expectations in his first year. He made mistakes but ultimately showed the arm talent that got him drafted first overall in the first place. While inconsistent, Winston was able to make his less-talented teammates better when things clicked, and was able to pass for over 4,000 yards.
In his second year, it was more of the same for the young quarterback. His touchdowns and completion percentage both increased, but so did his interceptions and fumbles. It was a sign that the gunslinger was gaining confidence, and the city of Tampa was ready for the upcoming breakout. After not targeting a lot of offensive talent through Winston's first full offseason to focus on defense (and... uh... Robert Aguayo), Licht began to add talent to the other side of the ball.
In the 2017 offseason, Jason Licht replaced aging receiver Vincent Jackson with a speedy deep-threat by the name of DeSean Jackson. Additionally, the young GM drafted skill position players Chris Godwin and O.J. Howard to round out a suddenly intriguing receiving corps. Despite shaky tackle play and a horrifyingly inconsistent run game, Licht was able to continue adding defensive pieces to round out a solid offseason. Previously, his supporting cast was blamed for Jameis Winstons' problems, but General manager Jason Licht did an impressive job of refreshing the mediocre roster that was previously installed.
The media took notice of the productive offseason, as well as the former first overall pick heading into a possible breakout year. Despite constantly being labeled a sleeper team, everyone was paying attention to their possible ascension. However, the Bucs never woke up. Despite statistical improvements, Winston did not seem to take the step forward that everyone was waiting for. As second overall pick Marcus Mariota led his mediocre Titans team to the playoffs despite an off year himself, the Bucs limped to 5-11. While DeSean Jackson and Doug Martin disappointed last year and the offensive line continues to be rough around the edges, the blame should fall on Winston for not elevating his teams' play enough. Franchise quarterbacks are supposed to make their team better, but the third-year quarterback seemed to be a distraction more than a help last year. Between his sexual assault allegation and a questionable pre-game huddle gone viral, Winston did not look the part of the leader he was supposed to be. Franchise quarterbacks are expected to elevate their team's play, fair or not. Russel Wilson has elevated the Seahawks’ offense’s play every year since his rookie year. Even with a glass wall as a line and no running game in the 2017 season, Wilson was able to create for his team this past season and almost will them into the playoffs.
If things continue to go wrong for this Buccaneers' offense, the next possible scapegoat for the team and media to blame would be coach Dirk Koetter. The same coach that escaped unemployment by a hair this past off-season, its a sure thing that he will lose his role as head coach if Jameis Winston once again lacks improvement this season. A bright offensive mind, Koetter might not be best suited for a head coaching role, but he is far from the reason the team suffered as it did last season. As both an offensive coordinator and coach, Koetter was capable of getting the prior mediocre roster to show flashes. He helped Doug Martin to a 1,400-yard season a couple of years ago, thanks in no large part to the offensive line. This past year, he wasable to keep the team afloat with Ryan Fitzpatrick starting a handful of games last season, arguably looking better with Fitzmagic under center. The retention of Koetter this past offseason will all be for naught, though, as the team will blame the coach before the quarterback if/when the time comes.
That being said, I believe there is one person in Tampa that is capable of outliving Jameis Winston, and that is Jason Licht. A bright young mind, Licht has always done a standup job of preparing for the draft and making the right moves. Over the past two years, he has surrounded Jameis with weapons that fit their coaches' schemes. If another scheme fails to make the him look good, the blame won’t be on the roster, it should fall on the quarterback himself.
While the league has waited for the Florida State alumni to develop, many other young quarterbacks have surpassed Jameis as the future of the NFL. The likes of DeShaun Watson, Carson Wentz, and Jimmy Garrapollo have all shown staggering development in their time in the NFL, pushing to become the face of the league's future. All three visibly lifted their teams play under center this past season. Winston, who as a prospect was looked at not too far behind Andrew Luck at the time, has not been able to deliver consistently on the field. The scariest part is that the team looked just as capable, albeit less dynamic, with their backup quarterback on the field.
Hopefully, the franchise quarterback finds growth in his upcoming season, and proves the media right about his otherworldly potential. However, if he cannot put the pieces together soon, he might start feeling the pressure of the bust label.