Last year, on December 4, Keith Tandy stepped into the starting lineup for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' defense, filling in for safety Chris Conte, who had suffered a chest injury the previous Sunday. From that point on, the numbers started piling up.
Tandy's first start of 2016 – and just the eighth of his NFL career – came in Tampa Bay's rousing road victory at San Diego, a tight 28-21 finish that added to the Bucs' growing playoff hopes. The game was so tight, in fact, that it was still very much in doubt until Tandy picked off a deep Philip Rivers pass intended for Dontrelle Inman. Tandy leapt for the pick and fell into the end zone, holding on as he landed with three minutes left in the game to secure the big road win.
Tandy would open the final five games for Tampa Bay during an impressive playoff stretch drive that fell just a bit short. In that span, he would rack up 45 tackles, four interceptions and seven passes defensed. All three of those totals tied for first in the NFL in that span among safeties, and the interception mark was tied for first among all players, regardless of position.
Tandy wasn't counting the numbers as they rose, however. There were more important things, such as that playoff drive, occupying his mind.
"I was just trying to live in the moment," said Tandy. "I was trying to make sure I made every play I was supposed to make. Then after the season you step back and you look at it and, say, 'Okay, I didn't really realize I was doing all that.'
"I mean, you never know [if you will play that well], but you try to prepare. You prepare and you believe in the way you're preparing, the details. You put in the hard work and you believe that something like that can happen."
The Buccaneers missed out on the postseason on a third-level tiebreaker. Tandy's five starts, then, were the team's last five games of a very promising 2016 season, one in which the defense made a stunning turnaround at midseason and evolved into one of the league's most turnover-happy units. To build on that second-half success, as Defensive Coordinator Mike Smith rolls into his second season in charge of the group, the Buccaneers added a number of potential impact players on defense, including defensive tackle Chris Baker and linebacker Kendell Beckwith. The secondary saw an influx of talent, too, with unrestricted free agent signee J.J. Wilcox and second-round pick Justin Evans, both safeties.
Thus, despite the departure of 2016 starter Bradley McDougald, the Buccaneers have a wide-open four-way competition at safety with the two newcomers, Tandy and Conte. Tandy is definitely not assuming that his red-hot finish to last year gives him a guaranteed starting spot, or even the early lead. He'll obviously compete to his fullest to hold on to his job, but he also knows that, at some point or another, all four of those safeties will likely be needed.
Photos of the Buccaneers' complete roster.
"Competition definitely brings out the best in everyone, so we keep bolstering the secondary and only good things can happen," said Tandy, who also started five games in 2013 and two in 2015, producing well each time. "In the NFL, injuries are going to happen, especially at safety, so you want to have as many bodies as possible to put out there."
It's quite telling that, when asked about whether or not his good work at the end of 2016 is carrying over into the 2017 offseason, Tandy interpreted the question as being about the defense as a whole.
"We're trying to figure that out," he said. "The confidence definitely carries over – we finished off on a high note so it's definitely good to have that confidence going in. But every season is a different season, so you've got to get back to the basics, start back at ground zero and just get back to the fundamentals. You can't forget those fundamentals during the offseason; you've got to be locked in on them."
Nobody doubts that Tandy will put in the hard work. Quarterback Jameis Winston, already a clear team leader in his third year, is well-known for a work ethic that often makes him the first player at One Buccaneer Place in the morning and the last one out the door at the end of the day. He has company in his long hours, though. On Tuesday, Winston referred to Tandy as "the guy that leaves the building when I leave the building." Smith knows how hard Tandy works and knows he can trust the sixth-year vet to be in the right place, especially after seeing him excel during the final five games of 2016.
"Keith is very cerebral," said Smith. "He has a great understanding of what we're trying to do. He understands football and he's continued to play and participate in the OTAs like it's been the season."
A sixth-round draft pick out of West Virginia in 2012, Tandy has outlasted all of his Buccaneer draft mates except for Pro Bowlers Doug Martin and Lavonte David. He has held down a valuable spot on the 53-man roster year after year because he excels on special teams, always responds when given a chance to play defense and knows the game inside and out. It's hard work that has kept his value to the team high, year after year.
"One thing I try to pride myself in is knowing the defense well, even trying to learn the offense. I want to know what everybody on the defense is doing, and that takes time. You have to put the time into it. That helps you play faster when you know where all your teammates are going to be. You know where your help is, so you know when you can take a chance and when you can't."
Pictures of phase three of renovations at Raymond James Stadium, as of July 19th.
Tandy not only has an understanding of what every position in Smith's defense does, he also is fully prepared to play two of those spots, both free and strong safety. That's essentially a requirement for Buccaneer safeties, because those two jobs are nearly interchangeable. In fact, they can sometimes switch from snap to snap, with little more advanced notice than the offense breaking the huddle.
"Actually, a lot of the time the offense determines which one you're playing," said Tandy. "They come out and move the tight end and you go from free to strong or strong to free. So we definitely cross-train both and we switch up in practice. Sometimes in no-huddle, Chris and I just say, 'Stay on that side,' and we both play both. There is no, 'I'm just going to learn free,' or, 'I'm just going to learn strong.' Basically it's the same position."
As Smith noted, Tandy has looked as polished and prepared in OTAs as he was during his great run to end the 2016 season. He has also been able to take a lot of reps, as both Evans and Wilcox missed most of the three weeks of OTAs due to minor injuries. Wilcox recently returned to the field and is participating in this week's full-team mini-camp. As good as Tandy has looked this spring and summer, the true competition for starting spots hasn't really begun yet. All he can do is be prepared.
"OTAs are OTAs," cautioned Smith. "It's not real football, it's far from it. We can't make assumptions, good or bad, by what happens in a specific practice, because this is not even close to what we'll be doing 16 times in the fall. But he's made a lot of progress."