It has been hard to avoid the hype surrounding the Bucs this offseason. For the third consecutive year the Bucs had a draft class yield multiple day-one starters and managed to reign in quality, high-character vets in free agency. This combined with Dirk Koetter’s promotion and Jameis Winston’s mere existence has created an air of excitement around the Bucs that hasn’t been seen since the 2010 team. If you recall, that team was headlined on offense by Josh Freeman, Mike Williams, Kellen Winslow, Legarrette Blount, and Donald Penn. Also, if you recall, they were an utter disaster the following year. The source of most reservations – including mine own – about this current team are the result of residual effects from the disappointment of 2011. So how do the current Bucs compare to that group? In what ways are they similar and different, and what must Koetter’s Bucs do to avoid the fate of Raheem’s Bucs?
The first thing that popped out to me when analyzing these two teams was overall stability. The 2011 Bucs were a wild bunch of personalities with no general to reign them in. With little to no veteran leadership in the locker room it was squarely on Raheem Morris – the youngest coach in the league at the time – to control and steer the youngest roster in the NFL. Fast forward to today and you’ll see that the current make-up of the Bucs locker room is much more well-rounded. The Bucs have struck an ideal balance between youthful exuberance (see Winston, Jameis) and veteran stability. For every Mike Evans, there is a Vincent Jackson. For every Vernon Hargreaves, there is a Brent Grimes. For every Ali Marpet, there is a Joe Hawley. You get the point. Should things begin to trend downward at any point in 2016, you can be sure that the fabric of the Bucs locker room won’t be torn apart and thrown into chaos.
It’s easy to look back and discern that the 2011 Bucs failed because of a lack of talent, and that we were simply fooled by a weak schedule in 2010 and lack of game film on the young players. But I think that it’s mostly about squandered talent. Many people might forget just how explosive the Freeman-Blount-Williams trio was for that short window of time before their individual demons got the best of them. Complimented by the likes of Kellen Winslow and Arrelious Benn, on multiple Sunday’s during the 2010 season the Bucs trio looked like the next coming of Aikman-Irving-Smith. It wasn’t talent that doomed them, but the inability to maintain and build on that talent, and therein lies a key lesson that the current group can take from that one. While this current group is definitely the more deep and talented one, the same lack of “want-to” that doomed the past team can get them too.
Penalties and turnovers are two more glaring issues that marred the 2010-2011 Bucs, and similarly were factors in many of the Bucs losses last season. It’s difficult to say exactly how these issues manifest, (especially penalties) but the current Bucs are reportedly taking very specific steps towards fixing them. Mike Smith was brought in primarily for his defensive expertise, but a bonus feature that the coach brings with him is his sterling history of low-penalty teams. Whether his process translates to the Bucs is yet to be seen, but it will be a defining factor in whether this team can take a step forward.
All things considered, what truly separates these two teams is probably the quarterback position. As successful as Josh Freeman was for a time, Jameis Winston is already well on his way to being a superior player, and is already far more respected as a leader in the locker room. Winston is essentially the antithesis of Freeman; a dedicated football junkie who eats, sleeps and breaths the sport, and someone who can be coached in any manner of way without missing a beat. Winston props up his teammates, while Freeman was too often reliant on his teammates to prop him up. Winston alone is reason enough to believe the Bucs can take a step forward.
In recent years the Bucs organization has seemed to somewhat learn from their past mistakes. After the 10-6 season in 2010 the Bucs foolishly decided to stand pat with their roster and rely on the youngest team in the league to improve organically without the help of outside veteran help. This time around, thanks in large part to stud general manager Jason Licht, the organization has peppered in free agent help, along with a class of multiple day-one starters in the draft. Should the team manage to stay healthy at the key positions as well as clean up their penalties and turnovers (it should be noted that avoiding these three things is absolutely no easy or sure thing), I think that the Bucs can take a huge step forward and finally put to rest the demons of the 2010-2011 teams.