Fennelly: Somehow, Bucs defy drought-ending trend

Jameis Winston greets teammates at the door to the locker room before a game against the Saints last month at Raymond James Stadium. [LOREN ELLIOTT   |   Times]
Jameis Winston greets teammates at the door to the locker room before a game against the Saints last month at Raymond James Stadium. [LOREN ELLIOTT | Times]
Published Jan. 5, 2018

The NFL playoffs begin today. For all the problems the league has, the playoffs are not one of them. I'll take the NFL playoffs over the college football playoffs. It's the best football going.

You know how I know it's the best football going?

The Bucs aren't part of it.

Droughts are out. The Jacksonville Jaguars are in the playoffs for the first time since 2007 — the last time the Bucs made the postseason. The Tennessee Titans are back in the playoffs for the first time in eight years. Los Angeles is about to host its first NFL playoff game in 40 years, courtesy of 31-year-old head coach Sean McVay and his Rams being back in the postseason for the first time in 13 years. And the Buffalo Bills are back for the first time in 17 years, which was the longest drought in professional sports.

The Bucs? Ten years without playoffs and going strong. They should sit their double-digit butts down and watch the games with the Browns, who have been blanked for 15 years.

It gets worse.

Marcus Mariota is going to the playoffs. Jameis Winston isn't.

For all the wing flapping in their fifth-win season finale, the miracle on the garbage heap, the Bucs face a reality that is inescapable and inexcusable. Everyone else is in. They're out.

This is not the way it is supposed to work. The NFL is constructed for bad teams to eventually become good enough and make the playoffs. The draft is set up that way. The schedule is set up that way. But, somehow, for 10 years, the Bucs haven't been set up that way.

All those other teams scrapped their way into the playoffs. The Bucs have made mostly bad news: an Uber investigation, impounded cars, impounded players, and on and on.

Why, poor Dirk Koetter even missed a golden opportunity when he and Saints coach and Bountygate miscreant Sean Payton exchanged words after the finale. It could have been the start of a rivalry. Koetter walked away. Payton walked to the playoffs.

Koetter just completed his second season in Tampa Bay. McVay is in his first year. Sean McDermott is in his first year in Buffalo. Anything else?

Leonard Fournette and Todd Gurley are going to the playoffs. Gurley might be league MVP. Fournette just bought watches for his offensive linemen to thank them for their help in his 1,000-yard season. The last running back the Bucs drafted did not make the team.

Look, the AFC is pathetic. The Bills are not playoff caliber. The Titans have played poorly in the majority of their games.

So what?

They're in.

Mariota was drafted one pick behind No. 1 overall Winston. He hasn't been very good.

So what?

He's in, and he'll play against the Chiefs tonight.

The Jaguars and Rams both drafted well. The Rams drafted Gurley in the middle of the first round and did the same thing to get defensive tackle Aaron Donald — and they're maybe the best players at their positions in the NFL.

The Rams were inept for a while, bad coordinators, undisciplined. McVay joined the club and put an offense out there. Now look. And all power to the man who once employed a teenaged McVay as an administrative assistant, a gofer, and who recommended McVay for the Rams job: Jon Gruden.

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Good drafting does not always immediately show up in the win-loss column. The Bucs know that. The Jaguars knew it and signed some veterans, including defensive end Calais Campbell, who had 141/2 sacks this season. Campbell helped transform Jacksonville, giving a bunch of talented kids a leader, helping to make them a great defense. Man, those pass rushers come in handy, don't they?

Yes, the Jaguars are looking at salary cap problems. So what? They made the playoffs. I'd rather be in salary cap trouble than just plain trouble like the Bucs.

It doesn't seems fair sometimes. Take the Bills. They're a fluke. They won that blizzard game in Buffalo, and after they won at Miami to end the season, they still needed last-minute help from Andy Dalton and the Bengals, who beat the Ravens to clinch it for the Bills.

I think the Bucs have more talent than the Bills. I thought the Bucs had more talent than the Bills the day they blew the game against the Bills. Without that win over the Bucs, the Bills don't make it. Maybe they should buy watches for the Bucs.

It's NFL playoff time.

And now for predictions:

Chiefs 23, Titans 14; Rams 34, Falcons 31; Jaguars 26, Bills 10; Saints 38, Panthers 35; Browns 15, Bucs 10.