Jones: Don't look now, but Bucs are pretty decent

Jameis Winston celebrates a second quarter touchdown by teammate Russell Shepard. [Getty Images]
Jameis Winston celebrates a second quarter touchdown by teammate Russell Shepard. [Getty Images]
Published Nov. 23, 2015


The National Football League, when you break it all down, is divided into two groups.

There are the bad teams, the ones that stumble, fumble and bumble their way through fall. They blow games and collect losses. They fire coaches and change quarterbacks. You know, the teams that stink.

Then there's the other side: the good teams, the ones that make plays and develop stars. They are the teams that win and make playoff pushes and play meaningful games when turkey and pumpkin pie are on the specials.

So, where should we put the Bucs? Bad or good?

For the longest time, they have been the former. Now, it's time to shift them over to the latter.

They aren't the Patriots just yet, but you cannot watch what they did Sunday — completely demolishing the Eagles in chilly Philly — and not see that this has turned into a pretty decent football team.

Pretty decent? Yeah, that sounds a bit reserved, but when you're coming off 2-14, pretty decent is a nice upgrade.

"A big win and that's how you play when you're a good football team," Bucs linebacker Lavonte David said.

Admittedly, it's easy to get carried away with Sunday's performance. Everything went right, and the Eagles fit right in with all the other Philadelphia teams that have decided to give up winning for a while.

Still. Jameis Winston looked like Tom Brady, throwing five touchdowns to five different receivers. Doug Martin looked like Jim Brown, gashing the Eagles for 235 yards, including mad dashes of 58 and 84. The defense looked like a throwback to the Steel Curtain with three sacks, four turnovers and David's interception return for a touchdown.

That's not to say that the Bucs suddenly have the greatest quarterback, running back and defense in NFL history. That's silly, of course. But this is no longer a lousy football team.

"I think we're there," veteran wide receiver Vincent Jackson said. "We still have work to do. I don't think this game is going to define us. … But this was good."

They have won two in a row for the first time in two years. They are 5-5. They are .500 with six games left. They are in the playoff mix.

Maybe this will be the high point of the season, maybe next week the Bucs will crash land in Indianapolis. This crazy league is full of overreaction, and everything seems to change from week to week. But this much is clear: for the moment, the Bucs are relevant.

"It's the best that we've played in a while," coach Lovie Smith said. "We talked a lot about back-to-back wins. I know that's small to everybody else, but for us, it's something we haven't done in a long time. The guys really believed it. To get to .500. We talked a lot about being relevant again. I think we're relevant again."

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Being relevant is a big deal for this franchise because it hasn't been truly relevant since the Jon Gruden days.

"We're in the mix," said Bucs defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, who had two sacks. "And when you're in the mix, that makes you relevant."

It didn't look as if the Bucs were going to be relevant this season after the opening loss to Tennessee, the dud game at Houston and that blown-lead meltdown in Washington.

But each week, Smith would step to the podium after losses and tell us that he saw improvement, that this team was getting better.

"Yes, this is what I was talking about," Smith said. "We talked a lot about making progress. … We're not there yet. We're excited about how we played (Sunday). There are still some things we need to clean up, but it's tough going on the road and winning, especially in an environment like this."

Smith has his critics. I was one of them earlier in the season. But he deserves props for how he has turned this ship around. His steady hand has as much to do with the Bucs' improvement as anything. He has managed to take a team that is still a work in progress, especially on defense, and have it in a position to make a playoff push heading into the final six weeks.

"I think everyone on this team truly believes in themselves that we can get there," Martin said. "That is something we did not have, but this coaching staff has instilled a culture that is helping us get to where we want to be."

Safety Chris Conte said: "I think guys are starting to realize we're a good team. When you're a team that went 2-14, it takes a while to get that confidence. Slowly, guys are starting to believe. It's starting to come together."

A skeptic would say that, big deal, the Bucs beat an Eagles team playing a backup quarterback a week after beating a Dallas team that played a backup quarterback. Next week, the Bucs will play a Colts team that will use a backup quarterback.

So what? That's how the league works. Quarterbacks get hurt. You play who you play. When you're given cream puffs, you beat them up. And you keep plugging away.

"Two wins in a row, that's good," Winston said, "but when you think about it, two wins in a row should be expected."

It certainly should if you're a good football team.