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Buccaneers-Cowboys AfterMath: Merry Tankmas!

Tampa Bay has more to lose by winning its finale against Atlanta.
Make sure Mike Evans gets the 5 yards he needs Sunday to break the team record for receiving yards in a single season. After that, it’s time to think about what’s best for 2019. [Associated Press]
Make sure Mike Evans gets the 5 yards he needs Sunday to break the team record for receiving yards in a single season. After that, it’s time to think about what’s best for 2019. [Associated Press]
Published Dec. 24, 2018
Updated Dec. 24, 2018

Let’s play a game. Let’s play “Would You Rather?”

• Would you rather have a horrible short-term memory or a horrible long-term memory?

If you’re a Buccaneers fan, the correct answer is yes.

• Would you rather have $130 or $100?

The correct answer is $130. Obviously.

• Would you rather your favorite team finish 6-10 or finish 5-11 and gain an additional first-round draft pick?

Of course you want the additional first-round pick.

That’s essentially what’s at stake for Tampa Bay when it plays Atlanta on Sunday. Right now, the Bucs are in position to land the sixth overall pick in the 2019 NFL draft (projected order below). If they lose, they could draft as high as fourth. If they win, they could draft as low as 10th.

The difference in value between the fourth and 10th picks: 30 percent. Imagine turning that down. In five months, you’re going to wish you hadn’t. So if you know you’ll want it then, why wouldn’t you want it now? Why are we even arguing about the validity of tanking? It’s just cold-blooded long-term strategy. The Bucs simply have more to lose by winning.

Case in point: Tampa Bay’s Week 17 win over New Orleans last season. Jameis Winston’s last-second 39-yard touchdown pass to Chris Godwin with nine seconds left was cool, wasn’t it? It signaled the arrival of Winston as a franchise quarterback and helped the team rid itself of its losing culture.

Actually … it did neither.

Instead of landing the fifth pick, the Bucs settled for the seventh, which they later traded. Remember that the next time you complain about the offensive line and the lack of a run game. Wouldn’t you give that touchdown back to have a chance at drafting guard Quenton Nelson? Or are you happy with Caleb Benenoch? The team that’s most grateful for that touchdown: the Colts, who drafted Nelson sixth overall and boast arguably the most improved line in the NFL.

What’s every team’s goal when it kicks off in September? It’s not to win six games. It’s not to win nine. It’s not to get to the playoffs. It’s to win a Super Bowl. To win a Super Bowl, a team usually needs to win 12, 13 games, and to win 12, 13 games a team needs great players. Those great players are in the draft, usually near the top. Beating the Falcons on Sunday doesn’t get the Bucs any closer to meeting those goals.

The draft is indeed a crapshoot. No team has figured it out. Even if the Bucs landed the fourth pick, they could choose the wrong player. Here’s the thing: Winning or losing Sunday doesn’t change that. Here’s another thing: You don’t have to draft anyone. You can trade the pick for more picks. If you can’t draft better than anyone else, you might as well give yourself more chances. The higher your pick, the more capital you have to acquire more chances.

If the Bucs went the trade route, it’s possible they could drop back a handful of spots and receive a handsome return. In 2014, the Browns held the fourth pick, and the Bills held the ninth pick. Buffalo wanted receiver Sammy Watkins, so to swap spots, it sent Cleveland future first and fourth-round picks. It’s a good thing the Bills won two games in December after they were eliminated from playoff contention. Those wins ultimately cost them several draft spots and a first-round pick. But they had momentum, right? Nope. They’ve been mediocre ever since.

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I’m not saying you throw the game. You just don’t play anyone that can help you win it. Don’t think of it as “tanking”; think of it as “player development.” Make sure Mike Evans gets the 5 yards he needs to break the team record for receiving yards in a single season. After that, it’s time to think about what’s best for 2019.

Sit the guys who will be back next season, and, if you can, the players who won’t be. This includes Winston. What more can we learn about him from another four quarters? Maybe he’s the long-term answer at quarterback. Maybe he isn’t. But it’s not like we’re going to have some kind of epiphany Sunday while watching him run around in the backfield when the pass protection breaks down.

As for the notion that the Bucs, or any other team, must try to win to protect the integrity of the game, you can take those concerns up with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, 345 Park Ave., New York, NY 10065. I don’t make the rules; I just recognize what they are. And as long as the rules incentivize losing, the Bucs might as well take advantage, just as they did during their 2014 finale against the Saints, when they pulled several starters and allowed a 20-7 lead to disappear. Their reward: the top pick in the 2015 draft, which they used to take Winston.

I can already read the emails and comments. Trolls don’t take days off, even during Christmastime. “Bass, you idiot. You play to win the game.”

I get that, but I wonder: Would you rather win today or win tomorrow?

NFL standings: Tampa Bay edition

If the season ended today, the Bucs would have the sixth pick in the 2019 NFL draft. Because the Bills and Giants have the same record and strength of schedule, they are in a tie for the seventh pick. In the unlikely event that they’re still tied after next week, a coin flip would determine which team drafts seventh. (Record and percent chance of landing a top-five pick in parentheses. Odds courtesy of Football Outsiders.)

1. Cardinals (3-12, 100 percent)

2. Raiders (3-11, 98.1 percent)*

3. 49ers (4-11, 100 percent)

4. Jets (4-11, 100 percent)

5. Lions (5-10, 67.4 percent)

6. Bucs (5-10, 17.5 percent)

7 or 8. Bills (5-10, 6.6 percent)

7 or 8. Giants (5-10, 4.7 percent)

9. Jaguars (5-10, 3.7 percent)

10. Falcons (6-9, 2.0 percent)

*The Raiders play the Broncos on Monday night.

Storylines

• Dirk Koetter isn’t done, according to NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport. “Everyone assumes that Dirk Koetter is on his way out,” Rapoport said. “My understanding is do not necessarily make that assumption. (The Glazers) have not ruled out keeping Koetter and basically their entire upper structure, including maybe Jameis Winston, for the 2019 season.”

Interesting timing. Rapoport’s report comes just days after the Ravens announced their intention to sign coach John Harbaugh to a contract extension, taking a popular name out of the coaching rumor mill. If the Bucs are considering making a change, a large number of vacancies, from six to 10, across the league would not be a positive development, as it would increase the competition for their top candidates. The Tampa Bay job is generally regarded as one of the least attractive.

• Brent Grimes is done. Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott targeted receivers in his coverage four times Sunday and completed all four passes, including a 4-yard touchdown to Michael Gallup. Quarterbacks have a 117.7 passer rating when targeting the 35-year-old cornerback this season, according to Pro Football Focus. They had a 75.8 rating in 2016 and a 73.8 rating in 2017. In 12 games, Grimes has broken up three passes.

“(Grimes) didn’t have his best day of his career,” Koetter said. “Brent hasn’t been tested very much this year. Teams mostly stay away from him. But I’ve seen him play better than that.”

• Vita Vea is just getting started. The rookie defensive tackle, who is drawing more and more double teams, turned in his third straight strong performance, recording a season-high six pressures against the Cowboys. Late in the second quarter, he manhandled guard Xavier Su’a-Filo en route to a sack that pushed Dallas out of field goal range.

“I thought Vita was our most dominant defensive lineman (Sunday),” Koetter said. “I thought he consistently got knock-back on the line of scrimmage. I just think he’s gained confidence.”

• In case you missed it: Cowboys defensive tackle Antwaun Woods mocked Winston’s “eat a W” speech.

What I got right

In this week’s game preview, I suggested that while Winston’s success on pass plays outside the pocket was notable, it also was unsustainable. His first-quarter fumble occurred when he tried to evade pressure from his left and didn’t realize defensive end Randy Gregory was behind him.

What I got wrong

Before the season started, I predicted the Bucs would go 7-9.

Links

Eduardo Encina: Turnovers costly in loss

Rick Stroud: Time is ticking away on a lost season

Tom Cowlishaw (Dallas Morning News): How the Cowboys' rise (or fall) by season’s end will be directly tied to Randy Gregory

Kate Hairopoulos (Dallas Morning News): How Jaylon Smith’s 69-yard touchdown helped the Cowboys take the next step defensively

Contact Thomas Bassinger at tbassinger@tampabay.com. Follow @tometrics.