Lovie Smith met with the press on Monday morning, after his team enjoyed a long weekend following a disappointing loss in St. Louis on Thursday night. In the interim, Smith and his team had an opportunity to review the tape from that game and gain a more detailed understanding of how the Bucs dropped a game they needed to win in order to stay in playoff contention.
So, upon further review, here are a few things Lovie Smith and the rest of us learned from – and/or what new questions were raised by – the Bucs' most recent contest.
1. The Bucs may no longer be able to achieve their primary goal for 2015 but they remain highly motivated for the last two weeks of the regular season.
Smith started his press conference on Monday by noting that the reality of the Bucs' ouster of the postseason race had hit hard over the weekend. Just two weeks earlier, the team had been buzzing about the chance to be playoff relevant throughout the month of December after winning three of four games to get to 6-6. With that possibility slipping away in the span of 11 days, it is natural to wonder if the players' motivation would go with it.
Smith says that won't be a problem, and in fact he delivered a direct message about that issue during his morning meeting with the team to start Week 16.
"As I talk to our football team, we need to have our best practice this week," he said. "There's not going to be any shutting it down for the season or anything like that. We're going to work this week as hard as we work any week to make improvements and play our best ball."
No matter what happens over the next two weeks, the Bucs will have improved significantly over their 2-14 season a year ago. Since the team fully expects to be a more solid playoff contender next year, Smith has appealed to his players' hopes for 2015 in order to add motivation to the end of 2015. He reference his 2009 team in Chicago, which had a 5-9 record before winning its last two games, one of them over a Minnesota team that would finish 12-4. The current Bucs will face a similar but greater challenge in Week 17 when it plays a Carolina team that may be trying to finish off a 16-0 campaign.
"I can see why that would be the perception, that it would be hard, that guys would be checking [out], but no that isn't what I've been through, what I've seen," he said. "I'm saying our 2016 season has started. There's a two-game part of the season, we're going to take a long break, but we want to show everybody what we are going to be next year. That's how we are handling this. For us, we're also going to finish up the season with the best team in football playing right now, so there's a lot for us to do these last couple [of games]."
2. Buccaneer players will also draw motivation from the belief that they are being closely evaluated in regards to how they fit into the 2016 squad…and they are right to believe that.
Linebacker Lavonte David, who signed a lengthy new contract before the start of this season, will obviously remain a core player for the Buccaneers in 2016. There are plenty of others who have also proved that they deserve to be a part of the team's future. Still, there is significant roster turnover every year on every team, and the Bucs will be no exception over the next nine months. The next two weeks will arm the club's decision-makers with some important information for the work that lies ahead.
"You're always being evaluated, especially at times like this when you don't make it to the playoffs and you just have to finish the season," said David. "This is where coaches really evaluate you the strongest because they want to know if you're going to go out there and play the way you need to play every week, week-in and week-out. These last two games are very important. Play for the organization and play for the name on the back of your jersey. Have some pride when you go out there."
Smith confirmed that he and his staff will be watching many players very closely over the next two weeks with an eye to the future. He could tell on Monday morning that most of the players already understand this.
"You are going to remember these last couple of games, [a] lasting impression on what we do at the end of the year," he said. "That's why the guys, everybody showed up today in meetings bright-eyed, ready to go and they know what the task at hand is."
Smith said the information the team would gather over the next two weeks was "very important." The Bucs know what they're going to be doing at weakside linebacker next year – not to mention at quarterback, left tackle and a number of other key spots – but there are definitely some positions that aren't close to being settled.
"That's why I think guys [are saying], 'What I can get accomplish these last two games, and if I want to be part of our program going forward I want everybody to have that lasting impression that this is what you're going to get from me next year.' I think it's very important. For the most part I think we've had everybody in position to prove what they can do this year. There are still a couple of guys that it would be good to know a little bit more about them."
Smith said these evaluative efforts could include some lineup changes, but only if they align with the team's main goal of winning the last two games.
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"In these situations I think first off, we're going to do what we need to do to win the football game," he said. "But as I say the 2016 season has started for us, we do need to know if there's a position where we haven't seen a guy and it's not going to hurt our football [team to play him and] we feel like we can win, yeah we'll give him an opportunity. We want to finish up the season knowing about our roster and knowing what we have and even knowing about certain players in certain situations and if that comes up we'll use it that way too."
3. The Bucs may not have a ticket to the playoff dance this year, but they do have a leading candidate for Rookie of the Year, in Smith's estimation.
The single most important on-field development for the Buccaneers in 2015 was the rapid rise of rookie quarterback Jameis Winston. The first-overall pick in last April's draft, Winston has started every game and shown an incredible ability to identify where his game is lacking and fix it. For instance, after an early-season rash of interceptions, caused in part by an occasional attempt to do too much, Winston has been picked off just five times in the last 10 games.
"As a rookie coming into this league, top pick in the draft, quarterback, we made Jameis our starting quarterback right away," said Smith. "He has been everything you want a franchise quarterback to be, so to say that there's another rookie out there better than our rookie that we have – you could ask me that a million times and you're going to get the same answer, probably explained the same way. What more can you look for in a franchise quarterback than Jameis Winston, is how I would answer that."
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Winston will obviously be a strong candidate for that honor thanks to his 3,422 passing yards and 20 touchdowns, not to mention the Bucs' improvement in the win-loss department. He will get competition from St. Louis running back Todd Gurley and Tennessee quarterback Marcus Mariota, among others. It might take a strong finish over the last two weeks for Winston to rise to the top of that list, but that's the goal anyway, regardless of what hardware may follow.
"Are we there yet? No, but once we get there we'll be holding up the Lombardi Trophy," said Smith. "We're making progress. Again, what he's done as a passer, as a runner, we talked about him as a leader, just everything I think 'Check, check, check, check,' is what you do. For Jameis to have a good year and have everybody talking about you is one thing, now to be able to finish up strong too. Again, this lasting impression is what we're going to have these last two weeks."