Last season, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers hit the midway point with a 3-5 record and a lack of consistency on both sides of the ball. In the second half, the Buccaneers won six of their eight games to get within a lost tiebreaker of the playoffs. At some point along the way, the team developed a clearer idea of what it was at its core, and that helped sustain a five-game winning streak.
The 2017 Buccaneers would need a win in New Orleans on Sunday to match last year's 3-5 midpoint record, but they are working hard to achieve the same sort of turnaround they managed last year. That may require having a similar team epiphany…or perhaps a few wins in a row would create that epiphany.
"I think every team has to find its common ground," said quarterback Jameis Winston. "As our team, we're still learning what that is. Last year [there] was a point in the season where we found out our identity. We are still trying to develop that identity and continue to get better. Every team has its own identity and we've got to find it.
"Every time you add new pieces to the puzzle, you are always trying to see how you can work it. I'm ready for us to go ahead and find our identity, but I know it's a process. At the end of the day we've just got to go out there and play – play our game, play our best games [and] all do our own job and try to see whatever it is."
Of course, a team's "identity" is a bit of a nebulous concept, not something that can simply be checked off a to-do list in training camp like installing the playbook or determining starters. And, as noted above, one can argue the direction of cause and effect between finding that identity and winning ballgames.
"Every team has its own identity and it changes from year to year," said Head Coach Dirk Koetter. "Right now, our team is not where we want to be so of course everybody is searching for the reasons why. The reasons why that we keep saying every day is that we're not playing consistent-enough football across the board. When we do play consistent football across the board and we don't beat ourselves, we will have an excellent chance to win games."
Clearly, Koetter's focus is on helping the team become more consistent in many aspects of its play so that the victories start to come. When that happens, the Buccaneers will then learn from those experiences how they best win games…their identity. Winston, who takes his role as a team leader seriously, understands that.
"In terms of identity, I'm talking about everybody as a team," he said. "This is a completely new team like every year. We've just got to find that. We've got to find what makes us click [and] what makes us go. We're trying out different things and eventually, when we establish that, it's going to be great. We're looking forward to establishing that sooner rather than later, obviously."
Last year's turnaround was spurred by a defense that suddenly started creating turnovers in bunches and was very good at getting off the field on third downs. Neither of those strengths have yet to carry over into this season. Tampa Bay's current offense, with such key additions as DeSean Jackson and O.J. Howard, has moved the ball at a better rate than ever before in 2017 and done a good job of utilizing all of its passing weapons, but it hasn't finished drives often enough or established a consistently effective rushing attack. When and if those things improve, the 2017 Buccaneers will find out who they are. Hopefully that identity will be a playoff contender.
- The Buccaneers' injury report saw some improvement on Thursday, with wide receiver Adam Humphries returning to the field in a limited capacity and defensive tackle Chris Baker improving to full participation.
In addition, while they remained on the injury report, defensive backs Robert McClain and Josh Robinson passed their league-prescribed tests on Thursday and were removed from the concussion protocol. That would seem to signal a likely return for both on Sunday.
A look back at all of the match-ups between the Buccaneers and the Saints.
McClain, who began the season as the team's nickel back, started the Week Seven Buffalo game on the outside, switching spots with Vernon Hargreaves. However, with McClain and Brent Grimes (shoulder) unavailable against Carolina in Week Eight, Hargreaves moved back outside and had his best game of the season. For obvious strategic reasons, Koetter did not reveal how the cornerbacks would line up in New Orleans.
"Well we are just trying to get our best 11 guys on the field where we think they have the best chance to help us this week," said the coach.
Also of note, though no surprise, was Winston throwing passes in practice for the second day in a row. During the previous two weeks, the third-year quarterback had rested his ailing shoulder on Wednesday and Thursday before taking the first-team throws on Friday. It's unclear how much that affected his play on Sundays, particularly because the same preparation led to one of his best games in Buffalo and one of his worst against the Panthers. Still, Offensive Coordinator Todd Monken is pleased that Winston is getting more work this week.
"I think, obviously, when your quarterback is able to go out there with your receivers [it's good]," said Monken. "And, again, I think it's hard for any given player to not practice and expect to perform at a high level, let alone at the highest level [with] what we ask our guys to do against the best in the world. It was good having him out there. I know in the weeks previous he had done a good job of the mental reps and doing the footwork, but there is nothing like throwing."