Five reasons the Buccaneers will (and won't) make the NFL playoffs this season

Ahhhhh, the NFL in May. Clean slates and fresh starts. Optimism is in the air. Everyone is 0-0. Playoffs? Super Bowl? Sure, why not? Dream away.
Defensive tackle Vita Vea was 12 years old when the Bucs last made the playoffs. [MONICA HERNDON | Times]
Defensive tackle Vita Vea was 12 years old when the Bucs last made the playoffs. [MONICA HERNDON | Times]
Published May 17

Ahhhhh, the NFL in May. Clean slates and fresh starts. Optimism is in the air. Everyone is 0-0.

Playoffs? Super Bowl? Sure, why not? Dream away.

When it comes to the 2019 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, however, there are a lot of killjoys out there. Most projection models and power rankings see a shipwreck of a season ahead.

Really, though, can you blame anyone for being down on the Bucs? We’ve seen this movie before, haven’t we? It’s good now, but by Halloween? Painful.

Even so, there’s a chance, however small, that the Bucs will go from worst to first. A team or two does it every season. The Bears and Colts did it in 2018. The Eagles and Jaguars did it in 2017. The Cowboys did it in 2016. If the Bucs are to reach the postseason for the first time since 2008, much will have to fall into place. Here’s a look at what could go right and what could go wrong.

First, five reasons why the Bucs will make the playoffs:

1. Bruce Arians

Bruce Arians isn't amused by your Bruce Arians isn't amused by your "new sheriff in town" cliches. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]

While many fans would be content to see the Bucs snap their 11-season playoff drought, that’s a low bar for Arians. He didn’t come out of retirement to slog through a couple of 9-7 seasons.

“We have one goal every year, and that’s to win the Lombardi Trophy,” he said at the NFL’s owners meetings in March. “Is that our goal this year because we’re starting? Hell yeah. We ain’t playing for second place or just to get better. We’re going after the Lombardi Trophy.”

Is winning the Super Bowl a realistic goal? It’s not Arians’ job to make accurate forecasts. It’s his job to rid this organization of its losing culture. To that end, he needs his players to believe they can achieve great things.

RELATED STORY: Bucs ‘will turn heads’ this season, Brandt says

2. Dirk Koetter’s Bucs were better last season than their record indicated

"If thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee." [MONICA HERNDON | Times]

Based on their point differential — a better predictor of future performance than actual wins and losses — they should have won six or seven games. Sometimes that’s coaching; sometimes that’s bad luck. Football can be random.

Expect the Bucs to come closer to meeting their potential under Arians. In his six seasons as a coach, including his interim stint with the Colts, his teams outperformed their point differential five times.

3. Better injury luck

Linebacker Kwon Alexander suffered a season-ending knee injury in the Bucs' Week 7 win over the Browns. [MONICA HERNDON | Times]Linebacker Kwon Alexander suffered a season-ending knee injury in the Bucs' Week 7 win over the Browns. [MONICA HERNDON | Times]

Last season, the Bucs were decimated by injuries, mostly on the defensive side of the ball. They were the least healthy team in the league last season, according to Football Outsiders. They’re unlikely to experience the same degree of carnage. Better health will mean more wins.

Take the 2018 Bears. They went from one of the least lucky teams to one of the most lucky teams. That good fortune, in concert with a coaching change, fueled a seven-win turnaround.

RELATED STORY: Here’s the real reason why the Bucs defense was so awful

4. Better turnover luck

Linebacker Adarius Taylor runs back one of the Bucs' nine interceptions last season. Only five teams picked off fewer passes. [MONICA HERNDON | Times]Linebacker Adarius Taylor runs back one of the Bucs' nine interceptions last season. Only five teams picked off fewer passes. [MONICA HERNDON | Times]

There’s more skill involved in forcing turnovers than avoiding injuries, but taking the ball away isn’t as repeatable as we think. Defensive performance from one season to the next just isn’t as consistent as offensive performance. (Bears regression alert!)

That’s good news for the Bucs because last season’s performance was hide-the-children bad. They forced a turnover on only 8.6 percent of opponent drives, the fifth-lowest rate. That will improve this season. The Bucs will attribute the difference to an increased emphasis on takeaways. In reality, though, the president’s tariff strategy is just as likely to be the cause. In 2017, the Dolphins, Texans, Bengals, Browns and Raiders had the worst turnover rates; they all improved last season. The Ravens, Lions, Jaguars, Eagles and Chargers had the best rates; they all declined.

5. Week 10 vs. Arizona should be an automatic win

Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray works out during rookie camp last week in Tempe, Ariz. [MATT YORK | Associated Press]Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray works out during rookie camp last week in Tempe, Ariz. [MATT YORK | Associated Press]

Amid all the griping about the Bucs’ schedule, it’s easy to overlook an absolute gift. In November, they get a rebuilding Cardinals team at home at 1 p.m., which will feel like 10 a.m. for Arizona. The Cardinals will have top overall draft pick Kyler Murray, but you’ll want to side with experience in this one. Rookie quarterbacks are 0-6 against Arians-coached teams.

And now five reasons why the Bucs won’t make the playoffs:

1. The schedule

The Bucs will play the Panthers in London on Oct. 13. [MATT DUNHAM | Associated Press]The Bucs will play the Panthers in London on Oct. 13. [MATT DUNHAM | Associated Press]

So, yes, the Cardinals at 1 p.m. in Tampa is a break for the Bucs, but the stretch from Sept. 29 through Nov. 3 is brutal. The real kicker isn’t the lack of a true home game; it’s the cross-country and international travel. To Los Angeles in Week 4. To New Orleans in Week 5. To London in Week 6. After a bye, to Tennessee in Week 8. To Seattle in Week 9.

In all, the Bucs this season will log about 25,000 miles, which is the equatorial circumference of the Earth.

RELATED STORY: Oops? NFL schedule-maker admits Bucs’ slate could be fairer

2. You can’t look at this roster and say definitively that it’s better than last season’s

Bucs running backs were hit at or behind the line of scrimmage on about a quarter of their carries last season. They offensive line will look mostly the same this season. [MONICA HERNDON | Times]Bucs running backs were hit at or behind the line of scrimmage on about a quarter of their carries last season. They offensive line will look mostly the same this season. [MONICA HERNDON | Times]

The Bucs were wise to fill the cupboard on defense during the draft. First-round pick Devin White is regarded as a Pro Bowl-caliber talent. Sean Murphy-Bunting, Jamel Dean and Mike Edwards add sorely needed depth to the secondary. Defensive end Anthony Nelson was a nice get in the fourth round. All of them are in line to get significant playing time right away, but what can we realistically expect from them during their rookie seasons? Bad teams count on their draft classes to save them.

The offense is largely the same, and that’s not necessarily a good thing. The right side of the offensive line remains a liability, and the Bucs still need a pass-catching running back. Maybe undrafted free agent Bruce Anderson will step into that role.

RELATED STORY: Bucs’ projected starting lineup doesn’t exactly excite this NFL writer

3. The salary cap crunch

Bucs offensive guard Ali Marpet, a 2015 draft pick, signed a contract extension in October that includes $27 million in guarantees. [MONICA HERNDON | Times]Bucs offensive guard Ali Marpet, a 2015 draft pick, signed a contract extension in October that includes $27 million in guarantees. [MONICA HERNDON | Times]

The Bucs have the least space in the NFL and need to clear room to not only sign White but to have the flexibility to make transactions during the season. Zoinks! You would expect a contending team trying to squeeze a Super Bowl run out its core to be in cap trouble. But a team that has won only 10 games over the past two seasons? Who’s writing the checks? Scooby and Shaggy?

The Bucs have too much money invested in too few players. They’re allocating 10.9 percent of their salary cap to Jameis Winston, 10.4 to Mike Evans, 7.7 to Jason Pierre-Paul, 6.5 to Donovan Smith, 5.7 to Ali Marpet, 5.2 to Ryan Jensen and 5.0 to Lavonte David. This isn’t an argument about whether those players are overpaid. The issue is that they’re unlikely to outperform their contracts. There’s a reason why no playoff team last season or the season before rostered more than one player who ate up 10 percent of its cap. That leaves little room to add depth, which is important because, well, good teams are built on depth, not around star players.

RELATED STORY: Why the Bucs’ window for contention has closed

4. Jameis Winston

It's a prove-it season for Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston. He can become a free agent in 2020. [MONICA HERNDON | Times]It's a prove-it season for Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston. He can become a free agent in 2020. [MONICA HERNDON | Times]

Winston’s a mix of good and bad, and when you blend it all together, he’s an okay quarterback. The good: He was one of a handful of quarterbacks last season to convert more than 40 percent of his passes into first downs or touchdowns. The bad: Of the 30 quarterbacks who have thrown 1,000 passes since 2015, his 3.0 percent interception rate ranks 29th. His 4.6 percent touchdown rate ranks 19th.

If the Bucs want to turn heads this season, Winston will have to take better care of the ball, no matter the score, no matter how bad the Bucs defense is, no matter how ineffective the run game is. He’s not throwing touchdowns often enough to cancel out the interceptions. Maybe under Arians he finally improves in this department, but it’s not an aberration. He has struggled since his final season at Florida State.

RELATED STORY: Who is Jameis Winston? We still don’t know.

5. Todd Bowles is a defensive coordinator, not a miracle worker

In Todd Bowles four seasons as coach of the New York Jets, his defenses ranked fifth, 21st, 18th and 21st in Football Outsiders' efficiency ratings. [MONICA HERNDON | Times]In Todd Bowles four seasons as coach of the New York Jets, his defenses ranked fifth, 21st, 18th and 21st in Football Outsiders' efficiency ratings. [MONICA HERNDON | Times]

The Bucs are losing Gerald McCoy, and Pierre-Paul might not play again. But everything’s fine? Because of Carl Nassib, Shaquil Barrett and Noah Spence? Because Bowles blitzes a lot? Come. On.

Look, it sounds awesome when the Bucs say “we’re going to attack.” Bowles’ Jets defenses attacked, too. They blitzed their butts off. The results last season: 27.6 points allowed per game (fourth most) and a 28.1 percent pressure rate (eighth lowest).

RELATED STORY: Bowles will get the Bucs up to speed on defense

Statistics in this report are from Football Outsiders and Pro Football Reference. Contact Thomas Bassinger at [email protected]. Follow @tometrics.

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