On January 2, 2017, one day after the conclusion of the NFL's 2016 regular season, Tampa Bay Buccaneers Head Coach Dirk Koetter met with the media and reviewed a 9-7 campaign that had come up just a bit short of the playoffs. Koetter and General Manager Jason Licht and their staffs were about to devote several months to identifying and addressing the team's shortcomings in an effort to take the next step in 2017 and return to the postseason.
That study had yet to begin, but Koetter had already identified one important area in which he knew his team had to improve.
"We need more speed and when we say playmakers, playmakers and explosive plays are one in the same," said Koetter. "Guys that can make explosives, guys that can catch a 10-yard pass, break one tackle and turn it into a 30-yard gain."
Given that priority, there hardly seemed like a better match in the subsequent NFL free agency period than wide receiver DeSean Jackson and the Buccaneers. Jackson had led the NFL over the previous nine years combined with 112 catches of 25 or more yards and an average of 17.7 yards per reception. And it wasn't as if he was slowing down with age. Using its "Next Gen Stats," NFL.com identified Jackson as the second-fastest player in the league with the football in his hands, based on his highest recorded speed on a single play in 2016.
As good as this marriage looked on paper, it did not produce the desired results in 2017. The Buccaneers had 47 receptions of 20 or more yards in 2017, only four more than the year before. Jackson's longest play was a 41-yarder, marking the first time in 10 NFL seasons he did not record a single play of 50 or more yards. His 13.4 yards per catch was the lowest of his career and he finished with 668 yards, his second-lowest mark ever.
Throughout the 2017 season and as recently as the NFL's 2018 Annual Meeting in March, Koetter has emphasized that Jackson's play had not slipped. He was still moving as quickly as ever, he was still running his routes well and he was generally where he was supposed to be. He and quarterback Jameis Winston simply could not make a consistent connection.
Jackson and Winston want to change that in their second year together, much as Winston and Mike Evans found much more joint productivity in 2016 than they had in the quarterback's 2015 rookie campaign. Both Jackson and Winston used the same word to describe what the receiver's play should look like: "electric."
"It was frustrating, but it's a part of the process," said Jackson on Monday as the Buccaneers' 2018 offseason program began. "Dealing with a quarterback like Jameis, a younger guy, he's finding his niche and still trying to be everything they're asking him to be and be accountable for that. With that being said, no one is perfect. I'm not perfect myself. There are plays I could go out and do better myself too, so as a football team collectively, I think everyone has their work cut out for them and as long as we put in the time, which is here on the field and in the meeting rooms, that's all you can really ask for.
"I'm going to do the best I can to continue to get open, stay electric, stay fast and do what I need to do to help this team as far as big plays or whatever it is they're asking."
Said Winston, who got Jackson to join him in Tallahassee recently for a couple days of working out and discussing the future: "I think it really is just me understanding who DeSean is and me understanding how DeSean is. You don't get a chance to play with that electric-type of player often, so I knew I had to make it intentional to reach out to him and try to build that connection with him."
Pictures of the Buccaneers during the first day of Offseason Workouts.
The biggest gap in the connection between Winston and Jackson in Year One was the deep ball. Jackson has obviously made a career of getting behind defenses and hauling in long passes, but that didn't materialize in 2017. Winston will strive to find Jackson downfield more reliably in 2018, but he could probably generate some additional explosive plays with shorter passes, too. Coming into last year, Jackson was one of only two players in league history who had averaged at least 70 receiving yards per game while also putting up an average yards after catch (YAC) figure of more than six.
"I want to be able to catch underneath routes," said Jackson. "I want to be able to get the ball in my hands and make guys miss and take it the distance as well too. I think any way you can get the ball in guys hands that's able to run after the catch is obviously what you want to have. It's just figuring out ways to get the ball in my hands and making some explosive plays. That's what we thrive on here, getting explosive plays. Statistics show that if you get those big and explosive plays, then you're winning more games."
Indeed, the Buccaneers have a specific per-game goal of producing explosive plays. Internally, Koetter's staff defines explosive plays as runs of 12 or more yards and receptions of 16 or more yards. Improving in the former category is a different discussion, beginning with the addition of center Ryan Jensen and the possible targeting of a running back in the draft. With Jackson and Winston, the Bucs already have the tools on hand to improve the latter.
The Buccaneers' goal is to get at least eight "explosives" per game, whether they be on the ground or through the air. Last year, they feel short of that mark, with 116 such plays, or a little over seven per game. That included 19 runs of 12-plus yards and 97 receptions of 16-plus yards.
Outside sources generally go for rounder numbers when defining explosive passing plays, and in that regard, the Buccaneers' total is a little misleading. Winston is particularly adept at medium-range passing, and last year Tampa Bay led the league in passes that gained 16 to 19 yards, with 50 of them. However, the Bucs' total of 47 pass plays of 20 or more yards was only good for 17th in the NFL.
Jackson said that getting on the same page as his quarterback in terms of hitting on big plays just takes more reps, and that the process took some time with Kirk Cousins in Washington, too. He and Winston are both willing to put in the time and effort it will take to get it right in 2018.
"I think it will work," said Jackson. "Talking to a lot of people, they said that the first year between him and Mike didn't really pan out as good as they thought and the second year, it kind of got a little better. So, that's something in the works that hopefully plays out with us, since last year we didn't really do too good. This year, hopefully we'll get a lot better.
"That's what you ask for as a professional. We all have a job to do, which is to go out and be accountable and be consistent as possible. Speaking on that, I'm sure he wants to do that and I want to do it as well. There are plays that could help this team win, spark up this team and hopefully get us into the playoffs and the tournament where we all want to go."