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Bucs Turning Point, Week 17: A win? No tank, er, thank you

The Buccaneers are now on the clock. Which Heisman Trophy winner will they draft: Oregon's Marcus Mariota or Florida State's Jameis Winston? Or neither? [Getty Images]
The Buccaneers are now on the clock. Which Heisman Trophy winner will they draft: Oregon's Marcus Mariota or Florida State's Jameis Winston? Or neither? [Getty Images]
Published Feb. 16, 2015

Fire the cannons! Bucs win! Bucs win! Bucs win!

It was a long road, and no one believed in them. Despite all the adversity, your Tampa Bay Buccaneers accomplished what no one thought they would before the season started: On Sunday, they secured the No. 1 overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft. Many teams stood in their way — the Raiders, the Jaguars, the Titans, the Jets — but in the end, there can be only one. Let the champagne flow freely.

Downtown Tampa hasn't seen a parade in more than 10 years, but this is cause for one. And receiver Tavarres King is the man to lead it.

Less than two weeks ago, he was on the team's practice squad. But in the 23-20 season-ending loss to the New Orleans Saints, he changed the course of the franchise.

He didn't do so by making a dramatic catch. No, he did so by not making a catch.

With the Bucs ahead 20-14 and looking to convert a 3rd-and-5 with 5:33 left, Josh McCown targeted King on a 5-yard slant. King beat man coverage and tried to haul in the pass, but it rolled off his hands and over his right shoulder into the arms of cornerback Keenan Lewis.

From there, the Buccaneers rallied to lose as only they could. It was almost as if they wanted to remind everyone how they lost 13 other games.

First, though, they showed us something new as they allowed Drew Brees to complete a pass to … himself. After that, the defense, stingy in the first half, couldn't hold on a 4th-and-2 and an even more critical 3rd-and-8.

It won't be remembered nearly as fondly as the "You go, Joe!" catch over the middle in the 2002 NFC Championship Game, but Brees' 3rd-and-8 pass to Marques Colston as he ran across the field in front of cornerback Leonard Johnson could prove to be a pivotal moment in Bucs history.

"It was really just 'Hey, let's get the first down,' but Marques turned it into a lot more," Brees said. "He did a great job of beating his man and getting separation."

The 36-yard go-ahead touchdown not only catapulted the Saints' win probability from 21 percent to 58 percent but also elevated the Marcus Mariota-Jameis Winston discussion above mere smart aleck musings. Suddenly, it was a real and valid debate.

And just to make sure it stayed that way, the Bucs started their next possession with an offensive holding penalty that negated a 17-yard gain and ended it with back-to-back sacks and a safety.

To seal the loss, they turned to King once more. On an onside kick after the safety, he illegally touched the ball before it traveled 10 yards, giving Saints possession. Today, the man is no goat. He is a hero.

The meltdown complete, you realized: Hey, those are the 2-14 Buccaneers you've watched all season — the ones who blow second-half leads (they've lost nine games in which they've led during the second half), the ones who turn over the ball more than almost anyone else (33 giveaways are second-most), the ones who can't protect the quarterback (52 sacks allowed are third-most) and the ones who hold anyone and anything in sight (34 offensive holding calls are most). Don't dare them, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis. They can hold you, too.

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Absent during each of the Bucs' final two possessions — and the entire second half actually — was rookie receiver Mike Evans, who earlier in the game caught his 12th touchdown pass of the season, a team record.

"The whole second half I didn't play," he said. "They just pulled me. I was gassed."

Gassed? It's unlike Evans to miss more than a handful of snaps, let alone a complete half. As Times reporter Greg Auman noted, Evans hadn't missed more than six offensive snaps in any of the Bucs' past six games.

He wasn't the only player coaches pulled. Linebacker Lavonte David also didn't play during the second half.

"In the second half, we wanted to look at some more football players," coach Lovie Smith said. "I don't think that's out of the realm of possibility, to look at some guys."

The evaluation process will continue during Thursday night's Rose Bowl when Smith and general manager Jason Licht will watch Mariota's Oregon Ducks play Winston's Florida State Seminoles.

While Twitter has reduced the decision to "retweet for Mariota" and "favorite for Winston," the Bucs can enjoy something that has eluded them throughout this moribound season: possibility. Now, they have options. And they should (and will) explore each and every one, including a trade. With a team that has as many significant holes as this one does, it's not automatic that you draft Mariota or Winston. Placing either of those two behind something resembling the current offensive line would be like placing a newborn in a cage with starving lions.

You must first stabilize what has been an unstable situation since the Glazers fired coach Jon Gruden and general manager Bruce Allen after a 10-win 2008 season. Six seasons, three coaches and two general managers later, the Bucs have won just 30 games. It's too early to judge the 2014 draft class, but the previous five classes — aside from the selections of Gerald McCoy and David — have been largely unremarkable. And those misses have led the Bucs to try to patch holes via free agency.

This season was a mess years in the making, and whoever the No. 1 pick is, he can't rebuild the franchise by himself, a fact Smith acknowledged after the game.

"We need more than just the one (draft pick)," he said. "We see that we have some holes on our roster, and we'll start working to fill them, which I feel like we'll be able to do."

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

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