THE REVIVAL BEGINS
This is an article from the Sept. 7, 2015 issue
As a hundred fans chanted his name from the bleachers (said chants peppered with calls of "leave him alone, media"), Jameis Winston said all the right things on Aug. 4. The Buccaneers' rookie quarterback, the No. 1 pick in last spring's draft, insists he doesn't care an iota about the team's past—even if Tampa's 2--14 record last season still factors big time in the way the team looks at 2015.
Without the Buccaneers' complete meltdown in coach Lovie Smith's first season, they would never have been able to pick Winston out of Florida State. This time last year they couldn't have imagined a scenario in which they'd be the first team on the clock come April. (Neither could SI, which picked the Bucs to win the division and finish 11--5.) But after Tampa's offense, behind quarterbacks Josh McCown and Mike Glennon, finished 30th in the league in total yards, the front office knew exactly what it needed.
When the Bucs interviewed offensive coordinators in the off-season—the team did without one in 2014 after Jeff Tedford underwent an angioplasty procedure in September—they saw a good deal of interest from around the league, says general manager Jason Licht. Prospective coordinators knew they would be getting a franchise quarterback (whether that was Winston or Marcus Mariota, the eventual No. 2 pick) and an attractive top target in second-year receiver Mike Evans, who had 1,051 receiving yards and was tied for the lead among rookie wideouts with 12 touchdown catches in '14.
In the end Licht and Smith went with Dirk Koetter (who previously held the same role in Atlanta and Jacksonville), a sensible hire. With the Falcons, Koetter led a productive offense that featured a talented quarterback, a deep group of playmaking receivers and a shaky offensive line—all of which the Bucs have, for better or worse. Under Smith, a defensive-minded coach, Koetter will have the freedom to which he's accustomed.
From the start of training camp Winston was impressive, primarily with his ability to read the field and his mental grasp of the game. "You can see it with his arm and the way he understands the plays," veteran guard Logan Mankins says. "He's not back there just reading one guy. He's making his progressions." Still, a turnaround, especially an immediate one, demands more than a No. 1 quarterback and a new coordinator. Tampa allowed 52 sacks last season; only Washington and Jacksonville ceded more. After selecting Winston, the Bucs drafted two offensive linemen in the second round, tackle Donovan Smith and guard Ali Marpet. Smith will likely open the season as the Buccaneers' left tackle, but these moves may not be enough to protect Winston, who at times was manhandled in his first preseason action. Still, the Bucs are aware of their shortcomings, and on Aug. 17 they signed former Colt Gosder Cherilus, who was cut by Indy after he was slow to recover from a knee injury. If he's healthy, he could be an upgrade at right tackle.
On the other side of the ball Tampa made fewer changes; in fact, in the two years since Licht took over as general manager, the Bucs have drafted exactly one defensive player, linebacker Kwon Alexander, in the fourth round in 2015. Tampa has talent on defense; the Bucs brought back tackle Gerald McCoy and linebacker Lavonte David, who signed a five-year, $50.25 million extension in early August. A year ago McCoy and company consistently were victimized by terrible field position, the offense's quick drives leaving them frequently exhausted. Those factors, more than skill, explain why the Bucs surrendered the eighth-most yards in the league.
Despite its dismal record, Tampa lost eight games by six points or fewer, and according to Pythagorean Wins, a method derived from point differential to calculate a team's expected win-loss record, the Bucs should have had 4.5 victories rather than just two. "We were losing so many close games, which was heartbreaking," Licht says. Smith doesn't accept that defense, though. "Statistics are for losers," he says.
Still, with that shaky offensive line and a defense that will struggle to create a pass rush, whatever success Tampa has this year will be dependent on Winston—and only a once-in-a-generation quarterback can turn a 2--14 team into a contender.
SI'S PREDICTION: 5--11
ANDY BENOIT ON THE BUCCANEERS' FLAWED D
There's no mystery to Lovie Smith's defense: It's a classic zone scheme that features two high safeties on passing downs (i.e., Cover Two). Smith will use disguises before the snap, often threatening interior blitz looks, but postsnap his defenders most often wind up in their usual spots—which has become the scheme's flaw. Cover Two soared in the late 1990s and 2000s because its simplicity allowed defenders to think less and play faster. But eventually offenses devised ways to attack it. Some of those ways: throwing into its gaps at the 15-to-20-yard range, aligning receivers in unbalanced 3-by-1 sets or simply running the ball with safeties back deep. To make the Cover Two work, you need speedy linebackers, smart defensive backs—smart will do, they don't have to be All-Pros athletically—and, most important, a dominant pass rush. Without a pass rush threatening him, a QB can hold the ball and let the zone's gaps naturally expand. The Bucs' best pass rusher, aside from Gerald McCoy (football's premier gap-shooting defensive tackle, above), is little-known, undrafted fourth-year end Jacquies Smith, who had 6½ sacks in '14 (all of them after Week 8). That's it, and that's another problem: There's not enough firepower in Tampa's four-man rush.