Winston's progress gives Buccaneers hope for future

TAMPA, Fla. (AP) Jameis Winston stood in the middle of the Tampa Bay locker room, talking about why the team has a promising future.

The Buccaneers (6-10) tripled their victory total from a year ago, and the No. 1 overall pick in last year's draft was the biggest reason why.

Winston joined Andrew Luck and Cam Newton as the only players since the 1970 merger to throw for 4,000 yards as rookies. His 22 touchdown passes and team co-leading six TDs rushing helped transform one of the league's least productive offenses into the best in franchise history.

The Bucs gained over 500 yards twice and averaged a team-record 375.9 yards per game, Doug Martin finished second to Adrian Peterson for the NFL rushing title, and Mike Evans had another big year receiving.

But that wasn't nearly enough to stop Tampa Bay from finishing last in its division for a NFC-record fifth consecutive season.

''I can't give myself a grade right now. I just know I have to get better,'' Winston said. ''I didn't do what I wanted to do. I would have loved to lead this team to the playoffs, but I didn't do that this year. I have to get better.''

The Bucs haven't earned a postseason berth since 2007, an eight-year drought that Winston and coach Lovie Smith expect to end in 2016.

The team overcame a slow start to climb into wild-card contention at 6-6, then closed on a four-game losing streak that prompted Winston to question some of his teammates' commitment to winning. The 21-year-old quarterback, who didn't single out anyone by name, said he's not concerned the comments might rub players the wrong way.

''Absolutely not, because the first person I called out was myself. I made that very clear,'' Winston said.

''The thing is, I just want to win. I know what we're capable of,'' the 2013 Heisman Trophy winner said. ''We left so much on the table this year. ... At the end of the day, I just want everyone to better themselves.''

Smith, who's 8-24 in two seasons as coach of the Bucs, reiterated his belief that the team is headed in the right direction.

He also was supportive of what Winston had to say about the importance of doing whatever necessary to end a cycle of losing. The coach said Winston's first move was to approach him and ask what the young quarterback can do better moving forward.

''As he came to me, that's how our conversation went. ... Part of being a leader is to challenge everybody to raise their standards,'' 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,'' the coach added. ''And as one of the leaders going forward, he needs to be vocal - and more vocal - in his role as our starting quarterback. ... When you're 6-10, we all need to do things differently, do things better.''

Some things to know about the Bucs entering the offseason:

IMPROVED, BUT STILL NOT THERE: For the first time, the Bucs ranked in the top 10 in total offense and defense. But finishing No. 5 offensively and No. 10 defensively was deceptive. The Bucs struggled to get the ball into the end zone, ranking 20th in points. They were 26th in scoring defense, allowing 24 or more 10 times.

HELP NEEDED: The Bucs have only drafted one defensive player, MLB Kwon Alexander, since Smith and general manager Jason Licht began running the team two years ago. Alexander, a fourth-round pick in 2015, earned a starting job in training camp and was one of the club's most consistent performers before he was suspended for the final four games for violating the NFL's policy on performance enhancing substances. Among the offseason priorities will be bolstering the pass rush and fixing a leaky secondary.

BIG DECISION: Martin rushed for 1,402 yards after being slowed by injuries the previous two seasons. The fourth-year pro can become an unrestricted free agent this winter, but has expressed interest in returning. Smith and Licht would like to keep him, too. The question is at what price?

FAMOUS JAMEIS: Winston's 4,042 yards were the second-highest total in club history. Josh Freeman threw for 4,065 in 2012. The rookie finished with 15 interceptions, doing a much better job of protecting the ball after turning it over five times in a loss to Carolina in Week 4.

''Our football team isn't a finished product yet, but I think it's safe to say that we're in pretty good shape going forward with (Winston) leading us, on and off the field,'' Smith said.

PLAYOFFS OR BUST: After progressing from two victories to six in his second year in Tampa Bay, Smith expects the team to be good enough to make the playoffs next season. ''I'm saying it should,'' Smith said.

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AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and http://twitter.com/AP-NFL

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