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Stroud: Picking through the wreckage of a season, Buccaneers can find some pieces to build on next year

CHARLOTTE, N.C.

The season had been dead for only a few minutes and Bucs rookie quarterback Jameis Winston, the heart that beats the loudest on the team, was already talking about what he has to do to make sure his second year in the NFL has a better ending.

He stood at a podium, first speaking in single syllables, then raising his voice until it gained strength and rhythm to sound uplifting as a sermon.

"We can't end the season 0-4. We're way better than that," Winston said Sunday after the Bucs' fourth straight loss to end the season, 38-10 to the Panthers, at 15-1, the best team in football.

"Losing four games, there's no way in the world that can possibly drive somebody. It's in here. It's inside your heart. This game is about will. This game is about taking things. You got to at least try to take a win.

"We've got to fix the whys on this team. We've got to fix 'why are we playing football?' We've got too many different 'whys' right now. When get that same 'why', the why we want to win together, that's when we become that true family."

The Panthers locked up homefield advantage throughout the playoffs as their quarterback, Cam Newton, put the Bucs' defense through another aerial torture session. He passed for 293 yards and two touchdowns, and ran for two more scores.

For the eighth year in a row, the Bucs are going to be locked up at home throughout the playoffs, finishing 6-10 and in the cellar of the NFC South for the fifth straight season.

"Cam Newton was outstanding today," coach Lovie Smith said. "I can see why he's the MVP of the league. But we just didn't play the type of ball eventually we have to play."

Winston passed for 325 yards, ran for the Bucs' only touchdown and was intercepted twice. He joined Newton and Andrew Luck as the only rookies to pass for more than 4,000 yards in a season. His six rushing touchdowns are the most for a Tampa Bay quarterback in a season.

"I think it's safe to say Jameis is an outstanding player," Smith said. "He's going to have a great future and lead us to a lot of wins. When you have the main piece in place for years to come, that does give you hope."

Smith nailed it.

The headstrong 57-year-old coach sees the glass as half full while some fans may see it as something they want to break over his skull. But Winston, and an offense that set a franchise record for yards in a season, are enough reasons for Smith to know why the Bucs tripled their win total from 2014.

A month ago, the Bucs were 6-6. Then came the four-game suspension of rookie linebacker Kwon Alexander, and perhaps not coincidentally, a four-game losing streak with defeats to the Saints, Rams, Bears and Panthers.

After the game, Smith told his players to pay attention to how the Panthers were celebrating on the other sideline. They were mugging for cameras, choreographing the "dab," enjoying their view from the mountaintop.

"As the clock was running down, I was looking over there, looking at them celebrating," said linebacker Lavonte David, who had 12 tackles, two fumble recoveries and a forced fumble. "Me, as a football player, I want to be in that position. That's why I play this game, to get into the playoffs and get to the Super Bowl.

"Looking over there, I've got dreams of one day being that team that's celebrating and getting ready to go to the playoffs. This upcoming season, I'm going to do whatever I've got to do to get us over that hump and get us there."

David, defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and Alexander are the only reliable pieces on defense. There's uncertainty at every other position. In the past two drafts, the Bucs chose almost exclusively offensive players and netted potential stars in Winston, receivers Mike Evans and Austin Seferian-Jenkins, and offensive linemen Donovan Smith and Ali Marpet. The Bucs need another draft and free agency to get a few edge rushers and a shutdown corner at a minimum. They earned the ninth overall pick in the draft Sunday.

"I think it's pretty much understood the areas we need to address. It was obvious today," Smith said.

Winston also has to get better. He threw six interceptions against the Panthers this season. That's as many as he threw in the 11 games between the Bucs' two games against Carolina. The Bucs lost by 28 to the Titans, the worst team in football, to begin the season. They ended it with a 28-point loss to Carolina, the best team.

The end was ugly. Evans was penalized twice and ejected for disrespecting an official in the fourth quarter.

"I guarantee you, we're going to create a winning mind-set," Winston said, gaining steam like a runaway train. "A mind-set that you will never give up, a relentless mind-set of being able to persevere over adversity. We're going to have that next year. That's me. I persevere. I'm relentless. I want to win. That's what I'm going to do."

It's gospel to the Bucs' ears.

Stroud: Picking through the wreckage of a season, Buccaneers can find some pieces to build on next year 01/03/16 [Last modified: Monday, January 4, 2016 9:29am]
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