The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have more questions than answers heading in their 44th season. But if the team can address some of those unknowns in 2019, they will improve upon their dismal 5-11 record from last season.
After years of struggling with staff overhauls (four coaching changes in 10 years), the organization finally got lucky. The opportunity to turn around the inconsistent career of Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston lured “Quarterback Whisperer” Bruce Arians out of retirement. Arians, who turns 67 in October, has only been a head coach for six years. Six years, two teams, and two times AP Coach of the Year. As interim coach, he took the Indianapolis Colts to the playoffs (from a 2-14 record under the previous regime). Arians also turned the Arizona Cardinals around and enjoyed three successful seasons (in five).
The offensive coordinator, Byron Leftwich, is an Arians understudy. He also happens to be a former Buccaneers quarterback. Arians instilled a lot of confidence in Leftwich, entrusting him with play-calling duties. Arians has never not called the plays and Leftwich has only called nine games.
With the hiring of Todd Bowles (defensive coordinator under Arians in Arizona), the defense made the switch from a 4-3 scheme to a more aggressive 3-4. With Ndamukong Suh and Vita Vea, Bowles has the players needed to be successful in the team’s new system. But…
Jason Pierre-Paul is an essential piece of that 3-4 puzzle, but right now he’s missing. The defensive end fractured his neck in a single-car crash in May, and it’ll be a month or two before he returns; if at all.
In 2018, Tampa Bay’s last-ranked defense allowed a 110.9 passer rating and a 72.5 completion percentage. Four of their starters for this season combined for one interception last season.
The run game was bottom of the barrel last season, and the unit remains unchanged. To be impactful, Peyton Barber needs to increase production, and Ronald Jones must prove his 2017 38th-overall draft selection.
In a schedule that Arians called “ridiculous,” the Buccaneers hit the road Week 4 and won’t play in front of their home fans again until Week 10. The team will go seven consecutive weeks without a game at Raymond James Stadium, including three cross-country trips (L.A. Rams, Seattle Seahawks, Detroit Lions) and one out-of-country trip – to England’s Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in London. The NFC South is one of the league’s toughest divisions, so winning in-division is going to be a challenge.
The Bucs are in the NFC South, which means they’re in the same division as the New Orleans Saints, Atlanta Falcons, and Carolina Panthers. Which also means they’re in the same division as Drew Brews, Matt Ryan and Cam Newton – three of the league’s best quarterbacks. All the usual coach-speak about “records don’t matter when you play (insert division rival)” is true. Intra-division teams meet twice during the regular season, so they know each other well.
The Buccaneers’ offense has powerhouse potential. If Arians can manage to whisper Winston out of throwing interceptions, they will be. Since entering the league in 2015, only one quarterback has more interceptions than Winston’s 58. It’s promising that those numbers have decreased since his career-high of 18 in 2016.
Also promising is that receiver Chris Godwin inched his way closer to 1,000 yards in 2018. Paired with Pro Bowler Mike Evans, the Bucs could have two 1,000 yard receiving threats.
Tight end Cameron Brate will not be playing with a torn labrum in his hip in 2019, which means he can reach for more touchdowns. At 6-foot-6, third-year tight end O.J. Howard is another weapon in their receiving game.
Pierre-Paul aside, the hope is that the injury bug that bit in training camp has been squashed. The Pewter Pirates need starters healthy to have a successful season; otherwise, their ship is sunk. Depth simply is not there so the need to rely on reserves would be troublesome.
It is my opinion that the Bucs will go 7-9 on the season. Wins will come against the 49ers, Giants, Panthers, Titans, Cardinals, Colts and Lions. They will lose to the Panthers (split), Rams, Saints, Seahawks, Falcons, Jaguars, and Texans.
The Bucs have not been to the postseason since 2007. I don’t believe one season will change 12 years of bad. Though Arians knows how to build a winning franchise; build is the keyword. It’s not going to happen overnight nor in 16 games. But they’re headed in the right direction.
Whether Tampa Bay veers or stays on course, however, is all on the shoulders of Winston. He’s under tremendous pressure to perform at a winning level in this, the last year of his rookie deal. If he plays well, he gets paid and becomes the first Buccaneers quarterback ever to earn a second contract. If he doesn’t, he could be tagged or sent packing.