TAMPA — Well, that's it. Season over.
How will we remember the Bucs of 2016? Better than last season, but they better be better next season.
Yes, they improved, going from six wins to nine after Sunday's 17-16 victory against the Panthers. But consider it an opportunity lost. If the Bucs hadn't blown it against the Rams way back at the beginning of the season, or if they could've pulled one out against Oakland, or if they could have avoided losing to both Dallas and New Orleans down the stretch, Sunday's meaningless game could have had meaning. It could have been for a playoff spot.
Instead, Tampa Bay's season ends shy of the playoffs for the ninth consecutive year.
There are reasons to be encouraged about the future, but this is a results-oriented business, and the Bucs simply haven't had enough positive results.
So, 2016? Better. But still not good. Here are some quick random thoughts following Sunday's season-finale:
• We've seen this show before. Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston started the game wild and high. His throws, I mean. Seems as if in most games, that's how Winston starts. Whether he's too amped or needs a while to get warmed up, Winston tends to start games by missing targets high. Former Bucs coach Tony Dungy was talking about this two months ago, and it's still a problem. The Bucs drove for a field goal on the first drive of Sunday's game, but if Winston has been more accurate, Tampa Bay would have scored a touchdown. Later, in the first quarter, Winston threw an interception deep in Tampa Bay territory, but that was Adam Humphries' fault. Ball bounced right off his hands.
• For eight months, I've tried to defend moving up to take Roberto Aguayo in the second round of the draft. A kicker is important, I felt, and the Bucs didn't have one. But, man, is it getting harder and harder to defend that decision. Aguayo rallied in the second half to have a decent season. He started the season by missing half of his eight field goal attempts. But since then, he is 18 of 22. Unfortunately, one of the four misses was a 46-yard attempt on Sunday. Come on, a 46-yarder? In near-perfect conditions? Gotta makes those. In a rather odd circumstance, his longest field goal this season was only 43 yards. Even odder is how few opportunities he had to kick anything longer than that. He attempted only one field goal of 50 or more yards. That was a missed 50-yarder. What makes the pick bad, aside from Aguayo's struggles, is the Bucs' need for so many other things.
• Game really didn't mean much, but it was good to see both teams trying. You know it matters when guys are smack talking, as Carolina quarterback Cam Newton and Bucs linebacker Kwon Alexander did after a sack of Newton. It would have been nice, however, if the officials were on top of it. They made a couple of iffy calls during a screwy Carolina series in the second quarter. A replay reversed a touchdown. A replay should have changed an incomplete pass to an interception. And replay should have overturned an interception to a reception.
• One of the better offseason moves the Bucs made was signing cornerback Brent Grimes. Not a bad season for the veteran corner, who had his 30th career interception on Sunday and his fourth of the season. He picked off Newton early in the third quarter and returned it 31 yards for a touchdown — the third pick-six of his career.
• Quick question: Is punter Bryan Anger, pound-for-pound, Tampa Bay's best player?
• Carolina linebacker Thomas Davis is not known as a dirty player, but he leveled Bucs receiver Russell Shepard with a cheap shot in the fourth quarter. As Shepard was gliding across the field with the ball nowhere near him (Winston was sacked on the play), he was totally blindsided by Davis. No telling what got into Davis, but that was disrespectful. Talk all you want about the league protecting players from injuries and concussions, but players also need to have enough respect for one another and protect themselves. Playing hard is one thing. What Davis did was gutless.
• Nice day for Bucs wide receiver Adam Humphries. Ten catches. Career high. Heck of a season, too.
• On second thought, no, Bryan Anger is not the Bucs' best player. Mike Evans is. His winning TD catch with 3:13 left was an appropriate finish to the season.