Despite the idea that Tony Dungy walks on water, Gruden was the man who was finally able to deliver the Bucs to the promised land and an improbable Super Bowl championship in 2003. But Gruden never could replicate the magic and was fired in 2008 after an epic late season collapse turned a 9-3 record into 9-7 and out of the playoffs.
That led to a series of horrible drafts, a cycle of changing head coaches every two years, costly free agency blunders along with just bad luck. Tampa Bay’s playoff drought now stands at nine years but they barely missed the postseason in 2016.
The many reasons for optimism in Tampa stem form stability at coach in Dirk Koetter, the ongoing development of young quarterback Jameis Winston, an offense that has enough talent to be very dangerous and a defense that seemed to come together in the second half of last season.
Expectations are sky high this year. The Bucs grabbed the national spotlight by being the featured team on HBO’S “Hard Knocks” which annually follows a team as it prepares for the season and some are even suggesting that Tampa Bay could be a dark horse Super Bowl contender.
The Bucs will only go as far as Winston can take them and if he can cut down on the turnovers and improve his accuracy it may be all the way to the playoffs.
There was a lot of debate over whether the Bucs should have chosen Winston from Florida State or the more polished Marcus Mariota of Oregon with the top pick in the 2015 draft. The jury is still out but as of now, it looks like both Tampa Bay and the Tennessee Titans have scored their franchise quarterbacks.
Despite his proclivity for turnovers, Winston is solid and looking to take the next step. He threw for 4,090 yards last year along with 28 touchdowns and 18 picks but he was also a fumble waiting to happen.
Hey, the guy tries to make plays even if they are boneheaded and his accuracy still leaves much to be desired. This is his third year in Koetter’s system so he could be set to make a quantum leap – or maybe he won’t be.
The Bucs have issues at running back. Doug Martin has been inconsistent throughout his career and was horrible last year after signing a big contract, he also was suspended for violations of the NFL’s substance abuse policy which will cost him the first three games this year.
Other than Martin, the cream of the crop is Atlanta Falcon’s cast off Jacquizz Rodgers who performed admirably after being signed last year but was plagued by injuries. Charles Sims have never quite lived up to his potential and has also been chronically injured so it will put more of the burden on Winston’s shoulders – at least until Martin returns.
The good news is that the Bucs are loaded at receiver. Mike Evans is a superstar in the making and Tampa was able to lure veteran speedster DeSean Jackson as a free agent. They also got lucky in the draft when Alabama tight end O.J. Howard fell right into their lap at pick 19.
Winston also has many lesser known options in tight end Cameron Brate, rookie WR Chris Godwin and versatile Adam Humphries.
The offensive line remains a work in progress and whether it can come together and protect Winston from injury will be critical, human interception machine Ryan Fitzpatrick is the backup.
The one area where the Bucs vastly improved was at kicker by admitting that trading up in 2016 to pick Florida State Seminole Robert Aguayo in the second round was a huge mistake.
Aguayo may have been the best kicker in the NCAA but was a liability all year for the Bucs who brought in veteran Nick Folk and moved decisively to drop the hammer on Aguayo after only one preseason game.
How much the defense will improve, let alone play as well as they did last year is a good question.
Defensive coordinator Mike Smith was able to get the best out of his guys this is still a unit that is not nearly as talented as the offense due to the focus of recent draft picks to help Winston.
When it comes to the D, the main man is lineman Gerald McCoy who despite his solid play, has never lived up to expectations as the third overall pick in the 2010 draft. In all fairness to McCoy, he never has had much help on the DL which is why the Bucs haven’t had a player with 10 sacks since Simeon Rice did it in 2005.
One of the biggest blunders out of a front office that is accustomed them was allowing lineman Michael Bennett bolt via free agency where he became the anchor of the Seattle Seahawks dominating defense.
But a comprehensive listing of Bucs who have on to succeed elsewhere would be huge so it’s best to focus on the present.
McCoy will have help from aging journeyman Robert Ayers and rising star Noah Spence as well as a linebacking corps that features disruptors LaVonte David and Kwon Alexander, neither of whom conjure memories of Hall of Famer Derrick Brooks but they’re not bad.
The secondary is going to need to improve in a division where the Bucs have to face Drew Brees, Matt Ryan and Cam Newton twice a year and while its’ a work in progress, 2016 top pick Vernon Hargreaves III looks to be a rising star.
So, what does it all mean?
This is a team that could be very dangerous but there are serious flaws in the running game as well as the defense that needs another year or so to be a force.
It’s ALL on Winston who is the guy that the organization bet the house on. If he is able to curb his tendency for erratic gun slinging, get his happy feet under control and realize that the NFL isn’t the ACC (All Cupcake Conference) then the Bucs can be a contender.