The 2015 Tampa Bay Buccaneers made significant progress through the first three quarters of the season, improving from 1-3 in the first set of games to 2-2 and then to 3-1. Unfortunately, just as the team got to 6-6 and the cusp of the playoff field to start the fourth quarter, that progress came to a halt. Now it's time for it to begin again.
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The 2015 Buccaneers finished 6-10, which was a real improvement over a 2014 squad that went 2-14. It wasn't a particularly satisfying end result, given the team's goal of returning to the playoffs, but that winless final quarter of the season was illuminating without being demoralizing. The Bucs believe they know where they stand as the 2016 offseason begins, as well as what they need to do to get over the hump next fall.
"We were 6-6, with a quarter to go," said Head Coach Lovie Smith, who took over the Bucs' helm almost exactly two years ago. "That was progress, to get in position, and things looked pretty bright for us. We weren't quite ready to take that next step then. We will make the corrections, the moves that we have to make in order to finish the 2016 season [in the playoffs].
"When you get to 6-6 in a season, it makes you think that maybe you're a little bit further along and we can get it done, but in the end, we weren't quite there. We're not where we want to be and eventually, we're going to get there. It's a process that you go through. Normally you can't skip any steps along the way. We haven't skipped any steps, but we realize in Year Three, we need to see the results of everything we've been doing."
Added Lavonte David, one of the team's captains: "We were 6-6 and these last four games meant a lot to us, and for us to finish the way we finished is disappointing. But it's a life lesson, it's a learning curve. When we come back in the offseason I hope a lot of guys have it in the mind that we're a team that can get there. There are just a lot of things we have to work on."
Smith and David addressed the team's near future on Monday, less than 24 hours after the 2015 season came to an end with a road loss to the 15-1 Carolina Panthers. The Panthers are now three-time defending division champs and clearly the club Tampa Bay will be gunning for in 2016. They had hoped to show they were already good enough to take down the champs on Sunday but were unable to do so in a 38-10 loss. With little reason on Monday to dwell about that game or any of their 2015 defeats, the Bucs were already looking ahead, and with confidence.
"We did a lot of things good and a lot of things bad," said center Joe Hawley. Hopefully we can learn from this season – there's a lot to learn from – and going into the future, I think our future looks bright. I think if you watch the tape, there's a lot of talent on this team, a lot of playmakers. I though the O-Line did a good job of coming together. We ran the ball well. Offensively, the way Jameis [Winston] grew throughout the year, he's going to be something special. A lot of promise and I think the future definitely looks bright."
Hawley was one of several Buccaneer veterans on Monday to point to such young players as Winston, the team's burgeoning franchise quarterback, as reason for great optimism. The Bucs' last two drafts have yielded such potential core players as Winston, tackle Donovan Smith, guard Ali Marpet, wide receiver Mike Evans, tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins, running back Charles Sims and linebacker Kwon Alexander.
"I feel really good about it," said David. "We've got a lot of great young guys that are buying into the program and going out there and putting it all on the line week-in and week-out. There are small things that we need to fix in there but I feel like we've got the guys to get over the hump. Jameis brings a lot of energy to the football team. He's a guy that we're going to look to as a leader and we're going to need him to have that positive mindset and that winning attitude. We're going to start with him and the sky's the limit for us."
Photos of the opponents on the Bucs 2016 schedule.
Only one of those names mentioned above plays on defense, as the Bucs have focused on rebuilding the offense in the last two drafts. The results in 2014 reflected that, with the offense showing clear and marked improvement and the defense mostly treading water. Smith believes the Bucs can do the same thing on defense in 2016.
"If we can have that type of success coming up, there's no reason to think that we can't make another big jump on our record as much as anything I'm talking about," he said. "So, yes, that's the plan. And not just, of course, the draft. We have free agency, we have a lot of different ways to improve our ball club."
There are core pieces in place on that defense, starting with David and defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, and there's a very real chance for it all to come together in 2016.
Photos from the Buccaneers' Week 17 matchup with the Carolina Panthers.
"Where this team is at, we were very, very close," said cornerback Alterraun Verner. "You saw the improvements. You saw that we were 6-6 and in the playoff hunt but we just couldn't finish this year. We're very close, and it's going to happen. The city of Tampa is going to be proud of this team."
David is a marvelous player but not a big talker on or off the field, so it might be surprising to learn that he issued a guarantee on Monday as 2016 began for the Buccaneers. He did…just not that type of guarantee.
"It's been an up-and-down year, but next season I'm going to guarantee that everybody's going to get back home, work on things they need to work on, come back here and work hard and get to that point where we need to be," said David. "We were in that playoff race; now we're going to try to stay in that race next year."