Staring through the Bucs abyss

Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Dirk Koetter talks to the media after mandatory mini camp on June 12, 2018 at One Buc Place in Tampa, Fla. MONICA HERNDON   |   Times
Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Dirk Koetter talks to the media after mandatory mini camp on June 12, 2018 at One Buc Place in Tampa, Fla. MONICA HERNDON | Times
Published Jul. 7, 2018|Updated Jul. 8, 2018

Bucs training camp is now less than a month away, and it feels like dark clouds have gathered around One Buc Place.

It happened suddenly.

Just a few weeks ago, I wrote how it felt as if the Bucs were starting to take steps toward improvement and there was a case for optimism in 2018. The glass was half-full.

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Now? It has all changed.

Now, it's hard to see through the abyss.

Surely I'll be accused of being a Debbie Downer, but haven't the past few weeks just sucked the life out this thing? That's what the Jameis Winston suspension has done. It has changed everything.

The Bucs are taking a beating nationally off the field for the Winston mess. Predictions for what is going to happen on the field are more pessimistic every day.

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It's hard to find hope. It's hard to get excited. Tampa Bay has a real chance to get off to a horrendous start that could set the tone for another depressing season.

All because of the three-game suspension of Winston for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy that has cast a dark shadow over the season before it has even started.

The first three games were already a reason for concern. Even the most optimistic Bucs fan had to swallow hard when the schedule came out. And that's when we all thought Winston was going to be behind center.
Now? Gulp, and more gulp.

The Bucs open at New Orleans, home of the defending NFC South champion.

Then the entire state of Pennsylvania invades Tampa Bay.

First, the defending Super Bowl champion Eagles visit. They're followed by the mighty Steelers.

Saints. Eagles. Steelers.

The Bucs were staring at, potentially, 0-3 even with their starting quarterback.

Without him? I'm not sure there's enough Fitzmagic in 35-year-old Ryan Fitzpatrick to steal even one victory in the first three games. True, Fitzpatrick went 2-1 as a starter last season filling in for an injured Winston, but do you remember those two victories?

One was at home against Josh McCown and the Jets. The other was on the road against Matt Moore and the Dolphins. Hey, those wins count. They don't ask how, but how many.

But let's be realistic. We're not talking about the Jets or Dolphins. This time around, there are no McCowns or Moores waiting. This time, it's Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger and whichever great quarterback the Eagles throw out there.

If the Bucs start 0-3, that might be curtains.

Typically, 0-3 is a death sentence.

Since 1980, there have been 173 teams that have started 0-3. Only five went on to make the playoffs.

Now, a couple of things.

Maybe the Bucs don't start 0-3. Maybe the 14-year veteran Fitzpatrick discovers that Fitzmagic. Maybe he and his beard pull out a victory along the way. And, well, five other teams have come back from 0-3 holes to make the playoffs, so it's not impossible. Maybe Tampa Bay could be the sixth.

But if we're being honest, of all the scenarios, 0-3 seems the most likely, doesn't it? And, if we're really being honest, 0-3 to the playoffs is a shot in the dark.

An 0-3 start for a team went 5-11 last season is not exactly the foundation for a turnaround season.

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An 0-3 start could put the team in full panic mode. It could turn up the heat on coach Dirk Koetter's seat. It should turn up the heat on general manager Jason Licht's seat. An 0-3 start is more likely to send a team into a seasonlong tailspin than serve as incentive for a historic comeback.

So let's try to look at it as glass half-full. There's still a lot to like about this team.

The Bucs have plenty of skill at the skilled positions. Mike Evans, DeSean Jackson, Chris Godwin, Adam Humphries, Cam Brate and O.J. Howard. You could make a case that no team has six pairs of hands that good. If rookie Ronald Jones can provide a running game, the offense could be pretty good.

The defensive line is much improved and maybe that helps a defense that is probably going to have to carry this team, especially in the first three weeks.
It's possible this won't be a nightmare season after all.

But that's hard to see right now.

The schedule is tough. The division is hard. And the first three weeks look impossible to navigate.

Right now, the abyss looks deep and wide and long.

Contact Tom Jones at Follow @tomwjones.