Photos of quarterback Jameis Winston from his rookie season.
When Malcolm Glazer purchased the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1995, the franchise was in a tailspin that had lasted nearly a decade and a half. By the end of 1996, the team was clearly on the rise, and a return to the playoffs in 1997 began a long run of contention that peaked with victory in Super Bowl XXXVII after the 2002 campaign.
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The key names on that team are easy for Buccaneer fans to remember, especially as they get added to the team's Ring of Honor at Raymond James Stadium, and occasionally get called to the Hall of Fame in Canton. Brooks, Sapp, Lynch, Barber, Alstott – players who were drafted, developed and kept in Buccaneer uniforms for many seasons. Then the occasional free agent brought in to provide the missing pieces to the puzzle – Rice, Johnson, Pittman.
Are the Buccaneers on the verge of another run of uninterrupted playoff contention, some 20 years after that first one began? Co-Chairman Joel Glazer sees that possibility, and it has him thrilled about the franchise's new era. He can see the same formula producing similarly outstanding results.
"That's always the ultimate goal and that's done when you have successful drafts," said Glazer on Tuesday in Boca Raton, where the NFL is holding its Annual Meeting. "We feel good about the young players that we have, and there's no reason why we can't head in that direction where we're competitive every year. Long, sustained success – we always say that's the goal, not just one year up and then you're back down. We think things are in place to head in that direction. That's why the fans I talk to, myself, my family, we're so excited about the upcoming season and seasons to come."
Buccaneer drafts in the early years of the current decade, while not necessarily franchise-builders from top to bottom, produced such key players as Gerald McCoy, Lavonte David and Doug Martin. All three have been re-signed to new long-term contracts. Over the past two years, under the guidance of new General Manager Jason Licht, the Bucs have added significantly to that core with the kind of talent influx that can reshape a team for many seasons to come. Starters from those two drafts include quarterback Jameis Winston, wide receiver Mike Evans, tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins, tackle Donovan Smith, guard Ali Marpet and linebacker Kwon Alexander, and several other players from those classes could still claim spots in the starting lineup.
"The young core on this team is really a spot for bright optimism," said Glazer. "We preach year-in and year-out that the successful teams draft well, re-sign their players and then they sprinkle in free agents. If you look at three of our players that we re-signed that we drafted – Gerald McCoy and Lavonte David and Doug Martin – and they're not just role players. They're substantial people on our team. Then you look at the last couple drafts, the success we've had in those drafts, right there you see a reason for optimism for the future. If you put a young core together, along with the quarterback, Jameis Winston, you have all the ingredients for success."
The Bucs set several franchise records on offense in Winston's first year as a starter, including total yards in a season (6,014). The potential on that side of the ball is obvious, and it's mostly tied up in young draft picks. Tampa Bay's defense, long the franchise's calling card, struggled in 2015 but recent tactical moves in free agency and the upcoming draft will address that issue. At this point, the decision to use the first-overall pick in the 2015 draft on Winston looks like a winner, but the Buccaneers are not going to hang their entire hopes for success on the young passer's arm. Instead, they want to build around him in order to maximize his potential and allow him to grow into his role as the team leader.
"The quarterback, no question, in football is the most pivotal position," said Glazer. "Most people would say it's the most important position in team sports and the key element to success. Now, quarterbacks evolve over time. We have to remember that Jameis is going into his second year. He's still a very, very young quarterback and we don't want to put everything on Jameis and expect him to carry the team.
"We've got to surround him with good players, which I think we've done on offense, add players on defense, and as he gains experience everything will take care of itself. Everybody else will grow with him. I expect it to be a team effort. But he's really done a good job in his first year and we're looking for improvement in his second year. And we know that nobody works harder than Jameis."