The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will be a different team in 2019.
This has nothing to do with a final record that will be either 6-10 or 5-11, but disappointing either way. It is simply a fact that everyNFL team changes, often significantly, from season to season, for better or worse. Rosters will turn over by about a third, some players will get better, all players will get older, training camp battles will alter depth charts and playbooks will evolve or be replaced.
So the "2018 Tampa Bay Buccaneers" will be a thing unto itself, a discrete unit, a family that is not exactly the same family as it was in 2017 or will be next year. This is much more obvious from within, and much more important to players and coaches than any observers. A fan of the Buccaneers can root for the team year after year and be cheering on the same core of players on what feels like the same team for a long period of time. The Super Bowl-era Bucs were the team of Derrick Brooks and Warren Sapp and John Lynch and Ronde Barber for years. But the 2001 team, which had all four of those men, was a different family than the 2002 team, which also had all four of those men.
So as the Buccaneers prepare for their last game of 2018, the message they've been preaching all year – do it for the man next to you– is more important to them than ever. This is the last game this particular group of men will play together, and they want to remember it for all the right reasons. It's a very real bit of motivation.
"We’ve got one more opportunity with this group," said defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. "Just make the most of it – that’s just been my message. It’s the last time this group will be together. We want this to be a stamp this year, something to remember. Just win the last game then move forward."
The Buccaneers did just that at the end of last season. After going 9-7 in Dirk Koetter's first year at the helm and only narrowly missing out on the playoffs in 2016, the team had high hopes for 2017. Too many one-score losses doomed their chances, however, and they went into the season finale with a 4-11 record and a date with the division-leading Saints. Then-rookie wideout Chris Godwin caught a 39-yard touchdown pass on the Bucs' last offensive snap of the season, the home team won, 31-24, and that team left on a small but important high note. That victory may or may not have had anything to do with the Bucs' fast start to 2018 – which ultimately wasn't maintained anyway – but it certainly had an effect on the mood at team headquarters throughout the offseason.
"Yeah, you never want to go in the offseason with a loss," said McCoy. "You just remember it’s the last feeling you’ve got. It’s always a positive going to the offseason with a win regardless of what happens after that."
This year's playoff hopes dimmed when the Bucs hit a four-game skid at midseason after a 3-3 start, a run that included two more three-point losses. A pair of wins after Thanksgiving at least kept the Bucs in the race heading into the last quarter of the season. The next three games were all losses to teams either already in the playoffs or on the doorstep, and the Bucs clearly lost none of their will to win in that stretch. They led the Saints, 14-3, in the third quarter and fell in Baltimore and Dallas by a single score each. The playoffs are now fully out of the picture for the Bucs but they insist they will play just as hard on the final weekend.
"Yeah, we’re always going to fight," said McCoy. "I don’t think you ever look at film and say, ‘Oh they’re not playing hard,’ or ‘They don’t care,’ a person making a play doesn’t determine whether they want it more than that other person. You look at the tape, you see everybody’s playing hard."
- There's one obvious statistical milestone in the offing on Sunday for the Buccaneers: WR Mike Evans will probably break the team's single-season receiving yardage record with a single catch.
Evans has 1,418 yards and the record is 1,422, set in 1989 by Mark Carrier. Evans is easily the Bucs' leading receiver, but the field behind him is crowded. DeSean Jackson has 774 yards, Adam Humphries has 750 and Chris Godwin has 728. O.J. Howard is a fifth Buccaneer pass-catcher over 500 yards but is now on injured reserve.
While Evans's mark looks easy to reach, there's another rare feat the Bucs offense could accomplish as a group, and it will take just a little bit more from Godwin. If the second-year receiver can gain 22 receiving yards on Sunday, he will join Evans, Humphries and Godwin as Bucs with at least 750 yards this season. And if that happens, the Buccaneers will become just the fifth team in NFL history to boast four different players with at least 750 receiving yards each.
The other four are as follows…
1. 1990 Houston Oilers:
· WR Haywood Jeffires (1,048)
· WR Drew Hill (1,019)
· WR Ernest Givins (979)
· WR Curtis Duncan (785)
2. 2009 Pittsburgh Steelers:
· WR Santonio Holmes (1,248)
· WR Hines Ward (1,167)
· TE Heath Miller (789)
· WR Mike Wallace (756)
3. 2013 Denver Broncos:
· WR Demaryius Thomas (1,430)
· WR Eric Decker (1,288)
· TE Julius Thomas (788)
· WR Wes Welker (778)
4. 2014 San Diego Chargers:
· WR Malcom Floyd (856)
· TE Antonio Gates (821)
· WR Keenan Allen (783)
· WR Eddie Royal (778)
- The Buccaneers played their Week 16 game in Dallas without any players who were forced into inactive status due to injuries. That's a bit misleading, of course, because the Buccaneers have 13 players on injured reserve and thus unavailable, but the 53-man roster was at least in good shape.
View photos from the Buccaneers' practice on Dec. 27 at AdventHealth Training Center.
That rarely lasts, and the Bucs appear to have a couple question marks for this Sunday's finale against the Falcons, including wide receiver DeSean Jackson. Jackson returned from a thumb injury last Sunday but then subsequently suffered an Achilles injury against the Cowboys. He has not participated in the first two practices of the week.
The Buccaneers would still have five healthy receivers if they are without Jackson. The positionon the depth chart that seems most questionable heading into the finale is defensive end. The Buccaneers started the week with starters Jason Pierre-Paul (knee/shoulder) and Carl Nassib (shoulder) on the injury report and then added Will Gholston on Thursday with a back ailment. Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy has also been limited by a shoulder injury.
Nassib is the only one of the four who has not yet practiced this week, in at least a limited fashion. As Head Coach Dirk Koetter noted on Thursday, it would be Gholston and Vinny Curry who soaked up extra defensive end snaps if Nassib wasn't available, but Gholston's addition to the injury report complicates that matter. Tampa Bay's defensive end depth chart also includes third-year man Noah Spence, who is primarily a situational pass-rusher.
The Buccaneers will have a greater chance of finishing the season with a win if Pierre-Paul and Nassib can suit up for the game. Those two have combined for almost exactly half of the Buccaneers' 37 sacks in 2018 and have set the tone for the defensive front with their relentless approach at the edges. Tampa Bay's opponent on Sunday, the Falcons, is led by prolific passer Matt Ryan, who is having another outstanding season. However, Ryan hasbeen sacked 41 times and Atlanta ranks 18th in the NFL in sacks allowed per pass play.