TAMPA — A month ago, the Bucs were 6-6 and in a good position to make a run at the postseason. But after losing the final four games, coach Lovie Smith admitted Monday his team just wasn't good enough to finish the job.
Then Smith dropped a match on his own hot seat, saying the Bucs should be in the playoffs next season.
"I'm saying it should," Smith said. "Can it? Yeah. We should.
"I'm going to go back to that. We were 6-6 with a quarter (of the season) to go. That was progress to get in position and things looked pretty bright for us. We weren't quite ready to take that next step then. But we will make the corrections and the moves we have to make in order to finish, to finish the 2016 season. Yes."
During his final news conference for the 2015 season, Smith said the optimism starts with quarterback Jameis Winston, who joined Cam Newton and Andrew Luck as the only rookies to pass for 4,000 yards in a season. Winston also played every offensive snap and set a club record for quarterbacks with six rushing touchdowns.
"For all of us right now, I think it's safe to say we have our quarterback of the future, our franchise quarterback in place," Smith said.
Smith attributed the late-season collapse to losing key players such as injured receiver Vincent Jackson and rookie Kwon Alexander, who was suspended the final four games for violating the league's policy on performance enhancing drugs. Alexander rejoined the team Monday. The Bucs lost to the Saints, Rams, Bears and Panthers to end the season and forced only two turnovers during that stretch.
"He was definitely missed," Smith said of Alexander. "I mean, you just look at the offensive side of the ball. It starts with the quarterback. Defensively, it starts with the (middle linebacker). We had a chance to see what Kwon was able to do. Playmaker. He brought energy, toughness. Relentless pursuit to the football. Just a lot. When you don't have all the foundation pieces established and you lose one of those key pieces, you see the results of it."
Smith is 8-24 over two seasons with the Bucs, falling short of his own expectations. But after going 2-14 in 2014, it would've seemed foolish to suggest the team hasn't improved after tripling its win total with a top-five offense (fifth) and top-10 defense (10th).
"I don't think any of us would say we've met our expectations," Smith said. "We had high hopes when we took over the franchise. We knew you just can't build a program overnight. You'd like to have a quick fix. That just was not part of the plan. You get to 6-6 in the season, you think maybe we're further along and we can get it done. But in the end, we weren't quite there."
However, Winston called out some of his teammates for not caring about winning as much as the Bucs coaches after a 38-10 loss Sunday at Carolina.
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"Some of our coaches want it more than some of our players and that's the bad part," said Winston, who did not name any players.
Smith didn't disagree with him.
"If he said that, there's probably a whole lot of truth to it," Smith said. "I don't muzzle Jameis at all, or any of our players. I want them to say what's on their mind and what they see. As one of the leaders going forward, he needs to be vocal — and more vocal in his role as our starting quarterback."
Winston first pointed the finger at himself, saying he needs to do a better job of protecting the football.
"As he came to me, that's how our conversation went," Smith said. "It was, 'Coach, what can I do better? What do I need to do better? How do you see me and where do you see me?'
"Being a leader is a challenge, and the challenge to everybody (is) to raise their standard — players, coaches, everybody in the organization. I assume that's what Jameis said. I know that's what comes out of his mouth every time he opens it about the team and what we all need to do to get better, play better, coach better ball, all of that."
Winston said he had not been approached by any player about his comments Sunday night.
"Some people do care more," center Joe Hawley said. "I mean, it's hard to come to work every day when it's a long year and toward the end you're out of the playoffs. There was definitely a different level of attitude. I think that's with any business."