Healthy Bucs enter the playoffs believing it’s a new season

The Buccaneers endured injuries and losses, and realize they may not have had as strong of a season to this point as the Cowboys. All that can change Monday night.
Published Jan. 11|Updated Jan. 15

TAMPA — Linebacker Lavonte David quoted the message written on the grease board in the Bucs’ locker room this week.

“It’s a new season,” he said.

Who wrote it?

“I did,” David said, smiling.

The handwriting may not be on the wall, per se, there is an expectation that the 8-9 Bucs may not be as good as the 12-5 Cowboys team they beat in Week One of the regular season in Dallas.

Even David acknowledged as much, given the struggles and injuries Tampa Bay has endured starting with that opener, when left tackle Donovan Smith (hyperextended elbow) and receivers Chris Godwin (hamstring) and Julio Jones (knee) went down and missed several games.

“That was (18) weeks ago. It’s a different football team,” David said. “We thought we were hot stuff back then, but (the Cowboys) have got the better record (now). From what it seems like, they’ve got the better football team, but we’re definitely a confident group, it feels like. I’m sure they’re a confident group.

“We understand what they’re bringing, and we’re going to be ready for it.”

With their NFC wild-card game Monday at Raymond James Stadium, the Bucs had a brief walk-through practice Wednesday as bonus preparation. The first injury report will be released today, and it appears the most concerning injury for the Bucs may be the hamstring strain suffered by center Robert Hainsey in the 30-17 loss to the Falcons Sunday, a game in which Tampa Bay pulled many of its starters by halftime.

Not only does the postseason wipe the records clean, the Bucs also may be the healthiest they have been since organized team activities in the spring, offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich said.

That should take some pressure off quarterback Tom Brady, who has had to make do with a makeshift offensive line and a rushing attack that averaged just 77 yards per game during the regular season.

“It’s good on good now,” Leftwich said. “This is true varsity football now, right? … And (Brady) has been in a lot of these games. He understands how these games have to be played. The last of my worries is Tom. When you get in these moments, it’s making sure we’re good around him, making sure we’re all on the same page.”

“That’s what bit us early. It’s hard to get people on the same page when you’re not practicing, when there’s a different guy in the huddle every day. … So I think with all the reps that the young guys would get, hopefully it would help us when we got to the end of the year, and I think we benefited from some of those young guys playing a lot of playing time.”

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Leftwich has spent time this week watching the Bucs’ 19-3 win over the Cowboys on Sept. 11, and it only drove home to him that neither team is the same as it was then.

The Bucs had a new center (Hainsey), left guard (rookie Luke Goedeke), right guard (Shaq Mason), tight ends (Cade Otton/Ko Kieft) and No. 3 receiver (Jones).

“You put in the tape and realize, man, we’ve been really fighting this thing right from the beginning,” Leftwich said. “It’s good to have a lot of the same guys in the huddle. Obviously, the game plan the first time we played those guys, will it be different? We’ll see. I’m quite sure they worked on things.

“They’re a different football team. We’re a different football team, especially when you get 20-some weeks since the last time we played those guys. That’s an eternity. You try to take what you can, learn from it and look and see where both of those teams are now.”

Only a bullyragged NFC South, with no team finishing over .500, kept the Bucs alive for the division title and a shot at the playoffs. Brady engineered comebacks in the fourth quarter or overtime in four of their eight wins.

Tampa Bay was 3-5 at one point and never won more than two games in a row during the regular season. Now they have to win three straight games to reach Super Bowl 57 in Glendale, Arizona.

“It felt like we were fighting every week for a win and we were in a battle every week,” Leftwich said. “None of them came easy this year. The wins or the losses, nothing was easy for us. Sometimes you have years like this in this league. I think it’s good for players and it’s good for coaches, because I think we all grew. I think our players got better. I think we as coaches got better. We were faced with a lot of situations that we’ve never been faced with in the past with this group.

“Nobody really understands those challenges that you’re going through every week. To be sitting right here as one of the teams that has the opportunity to be in the tournament, I think it’s a sign of our players, I think it’s a sign of how good of a job our coaches have done throughout the year. … This was a different year, to say the least.”

But as the sign says, and the playoffs and 2023 commence, it’s a new year now.

Contact Rick Stroud at Follow @NFLSTROUD.

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