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Tampa Bay Buccaneers season rewind: Opportunity lost

Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive tackle Gerald McCoy (93) leaves the field after a loss in an NFL football game between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and New Orleans Saints at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans, La.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive tackle Gerald McCoy (93) leaves the field after a loss in an NFL football game between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and New Orleans Saints at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans, La.
Published Jan. 8, 2017

On the day after the Bucs' season died, Gerald McCoy wore a black hoodie with a yellow emoji encircled by the words that matched his mood: I'M NOT EXCITED. After a 9-7 season, only the 12th winning record in the 41 years the NFL has played in Tampa Bay, there would seem to be plenty for McCoy and his teammates to look forward to. But the star defensive tackle knows this was a big opportunity lost. After watching all 16 Bucs games again, away from the din and deadlines, this much is clear: For a team that needed one more win — or the right win (over the Rams or Saints) — the Bucs had their chances. "We thought we had a lot of opportunities we missed out on," McCoy said. "It was a better season, but we know we should be getting ready to play again. Nobody's really happy about that." A few observations:

Winston throws better on the run

He thrives in the no-huddle. But early in the season, coach Dirk Koetter put way too much on his second-year quarterback. Jameis Winston attempted a combined 102 passes in losses to the Cardinals and Rams. Eight interceptions and two lost fumbles through four games will make you change your play sheet.

Many of Winston's interceptions came from forcing passes to receiver Mike Evans. You can't blame him. They were unstoppable on scramble plays and rollouts near the goal line. But the team never developed a No. 2 receiver after Vincent Jackson sustained an ACL injury in the Week 5 win at Carolina. Jackson played like he was 33. Cecil Shorts was developing chemistry with Winston but had a season-ending knee injury at San Diego in Week 13.

Koetter figured it out by Monday night

By the time the Bucs won 17-14 at Carolina on Oct. 10, a game in which Jacquizz Rodgers rushed 30 times and caught a pass on the first drive, Koetter had it figured out.

Rodgers had the team's only 100-yard rushing games and should've had a heavier workload, even after Doug Martin's return from a hamstring injury. The running back situation was a mess all season, and the offensive line shares the blame.

Rodgers averaged 4.3 yards running behind the same guys as Martin (2.9) and Charles Sims (2.9). Considering Martin's suspension and injury history, expect the Bucs to move on from him.

No game was more winnable than the Rams

Tampa Bay's 37-32 loss at home to Los Angeles is the one that most eats at fans. The Bucs led 20-10 and had Koetter let up on the accelerator, they probably could've protected the ball and the lead. Koetter took a lot of criticism for stuffing a timeout in his pocket at the end of the game when Winston was tackled at the Rams 5-yard line. He admitted as much the next day.

But the truth is his reasoning worked. Winston missed a pass in the end zone to a wide-open Jackson that would have won the game. Pin that loss on Winston.

Or blame it all on rookie Roberto Aguayo, who missed a field goal and an extra point. Oh, Roberto! What a disappointment you were. Koetter took a bullet for the organization on this one, even though he said he was on board with trading up and using a second-round pick on the Florida State kicker.

The defensive turnaround produced the five-game winning streak

The defensive line got healthy. But probably the biggest improvements came from rookie cornerback Vernon Hargreaves and the safety play.

Hargreaves, the 11th overall pick in the draft, began the season as the fifth defensive back in the slot during passing downs. That decision can be debated. In addition to adjusting to the speed of the NFL, the former Wharton High and Florida standout was learning a new position. Plus, Alterraun Verner wasn't getting it done to start the year. Once Hargreaves was moved outside, things started to click.

The defense went on a turnover-fest. Safety Chris Conte was awful the first half of the season. But his pick-six against the Bears got things rolling. It continued the next week in Kansas City when he intercepted Alex Smith in the end zone and returned it to midfield. It didn't stop with his injury replacement, Keith Tandy, who had four interceptions in five starts, including clinchers in wins over the Chiefs and Saints.

The Bucs figured out the best way for them to win. They played complementary football. The offense did a better job of not turning it over and scored enough, with Evans and tight end Cameron Brate combining for 20 of Winston's 28 touchdown passes. They used punter Bryan Anger to consistently shift field position.

A win over Dallas or New Orleans would've done it

Missing right tackle Demar Dotson allowed Cowboys defensive end David Irving to wreck the Week 15 game in Dallas. Pressure on Winston caused a sack fumble and an interception.

A bad play call, and worse execution, led to the Saints loss in Week 16. Trailing 13-7, returner Josh Huff mishandled the second half kickoff, pinning the Bucs at their 4. Koetter called a go-route to Evans against a cover-two defense. Winston overthrew Evans, safety Jairus Byrd returned the interception to the Bucs 14 and the Saints scored on the next play. Game. Match. Season.

As McCoy knows, the Bucs should've been playing at Seattle this weekend.

And remember, they beat the Seahawks, 14-5, on Nov. 27 at Raymond James Stadium.