Bucs' direction is decidedly up for first time in several years

Published July 28 2017
Updated July 28 2017

TAMPA — If you want to see a team give the Heisman Trophy stiff-arm to expectations, check out the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

They have an ascending franchise quarterback in Jameis Winston, who has thrown for more than 4,000 yards in each of his first two NFL seasons.

They have surrounded Winston and Pro Bowl receiver Mike Evans with blazing weapons such as DeSean Jackson and rookies O.J. Howard and Chris Godwin.

They have an improving defense in its second year under coordinator Mike Smith.

They are young. They are coming off a 9-7 season. They are desperate to end a nine-year playoff drought.

As veteran players reported to training camp Thursday, they had to try hard to avoid tripping over all the cameras and boom microphones from HBO's Hard Knocks.

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They have fanned the flames of a bonfire of hope that has been smoldering for years. Bucs fans have the most optimism they have had since at least 2008, the year after the last time Tampa Bay won the NFC South.

But coach Dirk Koetter has done a pretty good job of raising his team's humility to match the Tampa humidity.

"We haven't been to the playoffs … in almost 10 years," Evans said. "We'd like to break that. We've got a lot to prove. We're good on paper, but you've got to do it."

General manager Jason Licht, who would jump in his swimming pool wearing a suit to celebrate a win when wins were so infrequent in 2015, is deliberately dry.

"We had a winning season. We're not celebrating," Licht said. "I'm not jumping into a pool. But it shows the direction we're headed."

That direction is decidedly up.

And you know what? It should be.

The NFL is really a socialist society. The system punishes excellence and rewards failure.

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The worst team in the league gets to pick first in the draft. There is revenue sharing, a salary cap and free agency to remedy the biggest holes on a roster.

But since 2007, when the franchise last reached the playoffs under coach Jon Gruden and quarterback Jeff Garcia, the Bucs have done the kinds of things as an organization that ensure failure.

They begin with constant head coaching changes, from Gruden to Raheem Morris to Greg Schiano to Lovie Smith to Koetter. Each time a team hires a coach, the roster is turned over about 50 percent in the first year. Young players may not fit the new schemes. Entire drafts are erased. Teams then overpay marginal free agents gobs of money.

Consider that only seven players remain from when Licht walked into One Buc Place for the first time in 2014. Seven.

Continuity is the best asset of any team, especially in the coaching staff and with the quarterback.

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Koetter, entering his second season as head coach, arrived as Smith's offensive coordinator in 2015, so Winston has never had another NFL coach work as closely in his corner. Perhaps most important, Licht and the front office have strung together four consecutive solid drafts, acquiring three and sometimes four starters in each class.

The Bucs have done a better job in free agency. With fewer vacancies to fill, they've been able to zero in on established, high-priced players such as Jackson and defensive tackle Chris Baker rather than overpay mediocre talent.

As always, the key to the Bucs' success will be Winston. He is only 23 but is a charismatic leader that this team and the fans believe deeply in.

"This year he's going to explode, I think," Evans said.

Kwon Alexander was dying to get started. He dyed the ends of his hair red, giving him the appearance of wearing a beret. "I can't wait to hit somebody," he said.

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The NFL is a war of attrition. Injuries can torpedo any team. That said, no matter how quietly the Bucs hope to make their arrival to the 2017 season, there's nothing stealth about them.

They are a good team. The rest of the league knows it. The fans know it.

Isn't it about time?

"I feel the same way," Evans said. "We haven't been to the playoffs in my three years here, going on four. I see why there's a lot excitement. We have a really good team, a really good roster. Hopefully we all stay healthy and put in the work, and we can reach our goal to reach the playoffs. In the tournament, anything can happen."

Contact Rick Stroud at stroudbuc@aol.com. Follow @NFLStroud.

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