1. Bucs

Bucs do their best to stiff-arm the expectations

As always, the key to the Bucs success will be Jameis Winston. He still is only 23, but a charismatic leader that this team and this town believes deeply in. [LOREN ELLIOTT | Times]
As always, the key to the Bucs success will be Jameis Winston. He still is only 23, but a charismatic leader that this team and this town believes deeply in. [LOREN ELLIOTT | Times]
Published Jul. 27, 2017

TAMPA — If you want to see a team giving the Heisman trophy stiff-arm to expectations, check out the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

They have an ascending franchise quarterback in Jameis Winston, who has thrown for more than 4,000 yards in each of his first two NFL seasons.

They have surrounded Winston and Pro Bowl receiver Mike Evans with a cache of blazing weapons such as DeSean Jackson and rookies O.J. Howard and Chris Godwin.

They have an improving defense in the second year under coordinator Mike Smith. The Bucs are young. They are coming off a 9-7 season. They are desperate to end a nine-year playoff drought.

As veteran players reported to training camp Thursday, they had to try hard to avoid tripping over all the cameras and boom microphones from HBO's Hard Knocks.

They have lit a bonfire of hope that has been smoldering for years. It is truly the most optimism the Tampa Bay fans have had since at least 2008, the year after the last time the Bucs won the NFC South.

But Bucs coach Dirk Koetter has done a pretty good job raising his team's humility to match the Tampa humidity.

"We haven't been to the playoffs since...2010? When was the last time?" Evans asked. "Oh seven? Almost 10 years. We'd like to break that. We've got a lot to prove. We're good on paper, but you've got to do it."

General manager Jason Licht, who used to jump in his swimming pool wearing his suit when wins were so infrequent in 2015, is deliberately dry.

"We had winning season. We're not celebrating," Licht said. "I'm not jumping into a pool. But it shows the direction we're headed."

That direction is decidedly up.

And you know what? It should be.

The NFL is really a socialist society. The system punishes excellence and rewards failure.

The worst team in the league gets to pick first in the draft. There is revenue sharing, a salary cap and free agency to remedy the biggest holes on the roster.

But since 2007, when the franchise last reached the playoffs under Jon Gruden and quarterback Jeff Garcia, the Bucs have managed to do the kind of things as an organization to assure failure.

It begins with constant head coaching changes. From Gruden to Raheem Morris to Greg Schiano to Lovie Smith and now Koetter. Each time you hire a head coach, the roster is turned over about 50 percent in the first year. Young players may not fit the new schemes. Entire drafts are erased. Teams then overpay marginal free agents gobs of money.

Consider that only seven players remain on the Bucs roster since Licht walked into One Buc Place in 2014. Seven.

Continuity is the best asset for any NFL team, especially the continuity of the coaching staff and quarterback.

Koetter arrived as Lovie Smith's offensive coordinator in 2015, so Winston has really never had another coach work as closely in his corner. Perhaps most importantly, Licht and the Bucs front office have strung together four consecutive solid drafts, acquiring three and sometimes four starters from each class.

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The Bucs have done a better job in free agency. With fewer vacancies to fill, they've been able to zero in on an established, high-priced player such as Jackson and defensive tackle Chris Baker rather than overpay mediocre talent.

As always, the key to the Bucs success will be Winston. He still is only 23, but a charismatic leader that this team and this town believes deeply in.

"This year he's going to explode I think," Evans said.

On Wednesday, Kwon Alexander was dying to get started. He dyed his hair red, giving him the appearance of wearing a red beret. "I can't wait to hit somebody," he said.

Of course, the NFL is a war of attrition. Injuries can torpedo any team. That said, no matter how quietly they hope to make their arrival to the 2017 season, there's nothing stealth about this Bucs team.

They are a good football team. The rest of the league knows it. The fans know it.

Isn't it about time?

"I feel the same way," Evans said. "We haven't been the playoffs in my three years here, going on four. I see why there's a lot excitement. We have a really good team, a really good roster. Hopefully as all stay healthy and put in the work and we can reach our goal to reach the playoffs. In the tournament, anything can happen."

Contact Rick Stroud at @NFLStroud


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