The biggest takeaway from the Bucs' season is they have their quarterback in Jameis Winston.
The way the season has ended, going from 6-6 to three consecutive losses entering today's finale at Carolina is disappointing, to say the least.
This team had a nice vibe about it and a chance to reach the postseason a year before projected before the wheels came off with losses to New Orleans, St. Louis and Chicago in 14 days.
You can debate the reasons for the collapse — LB Kwon Alexander's suspension for performance-enhancing drugs, injuries, turnovers, coaching — which was a big buzzkill for the organization. Clearly, after spending the past two drafts almost exclusively on offense, the Bucs need to address the other side of the ball. They particularly have to find pass rushers and cornerbacks.
Nonetheless, the NFL is all about the quarterback. Finding that piece arguably has taken this franchise 40 years. The pain may be worth the pleasure for fans.
With 283 passing yards today, Winston could join Cam Newton and Andrew Luck as the only NFL rookies to throw for 4,000 yards. Offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter said what has surprised him about Winston is his resiliency and toughness. Add one more this: his competitiveness.
It's also rare that any quarterback, much less a rookie, can have a five-turnover game, then go four games without committing another turnover, as Winston has done. That Winston has 22 touchdowns and only 13 interceptions — about half as many of the latter as some predicted — is remarkable considering he will have more than 500 passing attempts.
"I think I've been pretty consistent with my answers as far as Jameis Winston is concerned," coach Lovie Smith said. "He's been outstanding, about as much as you can ask for from a rookie quarterback coming into the league. (He's) a guy whose arrow is definitely pointing (up). We're going to win a lot of football games for him.
"I had high goals, hopes for him coming in, and I would definitely say he has met them. He would say, 'Maybe I've met them.' He's not going to talk an awful lot about that. He expected to come into the league and play pretty good. He has done that."
RB Doug Martin, with his 1,354 yards rushing entering today, also has had a terrific season and made Winston's job easier. But Winston is the team's most valuable player, not only this year but likely for many years to come.
Here are other observations on the season:
Best rookie: Let's exclude Winston, which makes it a tough call. Alexander was the quarterback of the defense, so it's no coincidence that the Bucs' the three-game losing streak has coincided with his four-game suspension. He'll still finish second on the team with 93 tackles, three sacks, two forced fumbles and two interceptions. The Bucs have a terrific rookie class. In order, their "best" ranking: Winston, Alexander, LT Donovan Smith, G Ali Marpet, WR Adam Humphries, CB Jude Adjei-Barimah.
Most disappointing player: It's a tie between DE George Johnson and CB Alterraun Verner. The Bucs traded a fifth-round draft pick to Detroit for Johnson and a seventh-rounder. But in 11 games he failed to record a sack, and he lost his starting job halfway through the season. Verner's days would seem numbered. He lost his starting job, moved to the slot, has only one interception and has had some huge penalties. He's due $6.75 million next season, so the production doesn't match the salary. That means he would walk away with $14 million for two seasons.
Most improved: TE Cameron Brate. He had one career catch coming into 2015, and the Harvard grad was cut by the Bucs. They got him back from the Saints' practice squad, and he has caught 22 passes for 278 yards and three touchdowns.
Comeback player: It easily could be Martin, but give it to his running mate, Charles Sims. As a rookie last season, he missed the first eight games with an ankle injury and never got on track. But this season he has 1,001 yards from scrimmage.