One team. One heartbeat. One family.
The saying came from within the locker room last season, but it is perhaps even more relevant now. This time last year, the Buccaneers were still vying for a playoff spot and were having a stellar second half of the 2016 season. The general consensus was that the team was on the upswing – whether they made the postseason or not.
Now, almost 16 weeks into the 2017 NFL season, with Tampa Bay's record sitting at 4-10, this is not the follow-up performance those 2016 Bucs had anticipated. But this is the National Football League; adversity comes with the territory. That is all this comes down to: the Buccaneers are facing adversity. The true test of relationships and character doesn't come when things are going well – it comes when circumstances are challenging.
"I think any time you have this large of a group – when you put together all of the guys that, your 53, your practice squad [and] now you've got a dozen guys or so on IR, [plus] you throw the coaches in there [and] you throw in all of the people in this building working with them every day – if you are from a big family, there [are] good days and there [are] bad days," Head Coach Dirk Koetter said. "You can have a fight with your brother and still care a lot about him. There [are] always little things that come up, but for the most part I think our guys have hung in there. I think that is a credit to the leadership of the players. They've done a good job of that and that is a part of it. It's not the only part, or maybe not even the biggest part, but they have done a good job in that area."
Leadership is something that cannot be taught or learned. It is something inherent and it is evident throughout the building, whether in the locker room or up in the coaches' offices.
"No matter what our record says or the score is on the scoreboard, we are going to fight," wide receiver Adam Humphries said after the game Monday night. "That's just the type of dudes we've got and that's our leadership, too. We've got [quarterback] Jameis [Winston], [defensive tackle] Gerald [McCoy], [wide receiver] Mike [Evans] and [linebacker] Kwon [Alexander] – just competitors and that's what they do. That's a reflection of the leadership on this team."
Has it all been well and good? Have there been no rifts or tiffs or strains? Has there been sunshine and rainbows over the practice fields at One Buc every day? The answer is overtly no, of course. It's rains pretty darn hard out there some days. It is Florida, after all.
The team has been plagued with injuries all season. Week 2 saw linebacker Kwon Alexander go down, shortly followed by fellow linebacker Lavonte David. They were both out several weeks. Then, of course, there was quarterback Jameis Winston, who after playing through multiple games with an injury to his AC joint in his throwing shoulder, was finally sidelined for three weeks in the middle of the season to rest and heal. There was the game in Green Bay against the Packers on Dec. 3, where the day of the game, already without starting center, Ali Marpet, who had been placed on IR the week before, guard Evan Smith found out he would be tapped to be the middleman because backup center Joe Hawley came down with an illness.
There were freak plays that seemed to have derailed the Bucs efforts at the most inopportune moments. In last Monday's contest against Atlanta in primetime, with the clock winding down and the Bucs in need of a field goal to send the game into extra time, a referee tripped and fell on his way off the field, costing Tampa Bay precious seconds. Those precious seconds could have meant another play that would have shortened the field goal attempt. Instead kicker Patrick Murray was hurried onto the field to get the kick off in time and would end up missing the 54-yarder as the Bucs fell in a heartbreaker.
Through it all, if you go out to practice, you still see guys dancing [insert inspirational dancing in the rain cliché here]. You still see the individual handshakes that were developed amongst friends. You still see guys laughing and having fun with each other. You don't see the faces of dejected players. You don't see sullenness. You don't see 'quit.' It's because no matter what circumstances are on the outside, in here, within the confines of One Buccaneer Place, these guys are a family – and family weathers the storm.
A look back at all of the match-ups between the Buccaneers and the Panthers.
"I'm so proud of our guys offensively," Offensive Coordinator Todd Monken said. "I can't say it enough. I'm not going to say the injuries, but we've had some things happen [with] Jameis being hurt and whatever, but it feels like we are getting better. It just feels like it. It feels like when you talk about, 'You have nothing to play for.' Oh, yes, we do. We have a lot to play for. As professionals, our product we put on the field – the guys that I coach and our offense, what it looks like – there is a lot to play for. I think our guys have owned that and have continued to do that. You have not seen our guys just say, 'Screw it.' That has not been the case and that says a lot about them and our offensive staff."
So, what's left to do? End the season on a high note and face adversity head on, once again.
"It's going to be beautiful when we continue to fight, continue to give our all and scratch out two wins, starting with this one," quarterback Jameis Winston said. "We've got to fight. Our season isn't over, especially not to me and to the guys in that locker room. No matter who we have out there, our job is to play football and we've got to find a way to win."
Adversity and challenges are going to happen. There is no perfect season, there is no perfect team and there is no perfect coach or player. But if you can stick together during the bad times, imagine just how good the good times can be.