By Sean Tyler (@seantyleruk)
Time to take a look at Mr 30/30 himself and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Arguably one of the most exciting teams to watch (not always for the right reasons) in 2019 but what did Bruce Arians achieve this season and what has he got to do to try and obtain a winning record in 2020? More importantly, does it involve Jameis Winston?
ENTERING THE SEASON
Hoping to improve on 5-11 from the previous year, Tampa Bay spent the spring re-signing, extending and acquiring a whole host of players. These included offensive tackles Donovan Smith and Demar Dotson, and leading rusher Peyton Barber. WR Breshad Perriman was a decent pick-up in free agency, but linebacker Shaquil Barrett was arguably the best signing (by any team) in 2019.
A couple of months later, former LA Rams defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh also joined the fray, and in the NFL Draft, the Bucs stayed D-heavy. Other than kicker Matt Gay and receiver Scotty Miller, every other pick was a defender. Headed by another linebacker (LSU’s Devin White) at No.5 overall, followed by corners Sean Murphy-Bunting and Jamel Dean, NFL.com recently gave the rookie class an A+ grade.
Not surprisingly, the Bucs’ pre-season games were close, low-scoring affairs, with a two-point loss at Pittsburgh preceding wins over Miami (16-14), Cleveland (13-12) and Dallas (17-15).
DURING THE SEASON
To the uninitiated, their eventual 7-9 record might appear to have been an unremarkable campaign for the Bucs. But in many ways, it was anything but; in fact, the record-book writers were kept pretty busy.
Providing a snapshot of what was to come, Jameis Winston featured heavily in the highlight reel of the opening day 31-17 loss to San Francisco, for all the wrong reasons (three interceptions, including two pick-sixes). The Bucs’ win at Carolina in Week 2 featured some solid last-ditch defending to keep Christian McCaffrey out of the end zone but then they blew an 18-point lead against the New York Giants, with rookie kicker Matt Gay missing what would have been a winning FG as the clock hit zero.
In Week 4, Suh, a former LA Ram, iced the 55-40 victory over the reigning NFC champions with a 37-yard fumble return. The win took the Bucs over the 50-point mark for the first time.
Despite their early promise, the Buccaneers hit a wall and limped to 2-6 with a run of four defeats. In a lacklustre 31-24 loss to New Orleans, Teddy Bridgewater threw four TD passes, while the Seahawks’ Russell Wilson went one better a couple of weeks later. Worryingly, Tampa shipped almost 1,000 total yards in those two games alone.
In between, Tampa lost 37-26 in their Panthers rematch, with Winston (five interceptions – there’s a theme here, people) fumbling twice and getting sacked seven times in the second NFL game at the new Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in London. After the bye week, our erstwhile quarterback hero (four turnovers) carried on where he left off in a 27-23 loss to the Titans.
Somehow, things picked up with a run of five wins in six, starting with Arians getting the better of his former team the Arizona Cardinals. After another loss to the Saints (Winston: four interceptions), the Bucs hit their stride, tormenting Matt Ryan, Nick Foles and Gardner Minshew in wins over Atlanta and Jacksonville. And in defeating the Colts 38-35, Winston (three turnovers) nabbed five total touchdowns and threw for 456 yards, surpassing his own single-season total with three games to spare. The win lifted the Bucs to 6-7, but it wasn’t enough to avoid elimination from postseason contention.
In setting yet another NFL benchmark – two consecutive games of 450+ yards passing – Winston threw for four TDs in a dominant 38-17 win over the Detroit Lions. Third-choice wideout Breshad Perriman – suddenly the target man after Chris Godwin and Mike Evans sustained hamstring injuries – set career bests down the stretch with 134 yards receiving (week 17 vs Atlanta) and three TDs (week 15 vs Lions), and finished the season with three 100-yard games.
Disappointingly, having battled to back to 7-7 and the chance for a winning season, Tampa lost their last two against the playoff-bound Houston Texans and NFC South rivals the Atlanta Falcons, in which Devin White returned a fumble 91 yards to the house.
Looking back, the season was awash with new franchise records: most touchdowns (54), most points (458), fewest rushing yards allowed (1,181) and, to put the icing on the cake, Shaq Barrett smashed his one-year ‘prove-it’ deal out of the park with 19.5 sacks. The Bucs also led the NFL in run defence, allowing only one player (Seattle’s Chris Carson) – and only three entire teams – 100 yards rushing.
Even Jameis Winston himself set new highs: 5,109 passing yards, 33 touchdown passes, 626 passing attempts and 389 completions. But on the flip side, he also led the NFL with 30 interceptions. Amazingly, that wasn’t a franchise record (thanks to Vinny Testaverde back in the Eighties).
Reaching 7-9 in 2019 – with Head Coach Bruce Arians at the helm for the first time since being hauled out of retirement – the Buccaneers weren’t a million miles from the playoffs. That said, their eventual failure extended the NFL’s second-longest postseason drought to 12 years.
At this time of year, which Bruce Arians has referred to as “monotonous”, there are no gaping holes to fill but Tampa Bay do have 19 unrestricted free agents, which muddies the waters somewhat. Even keeping the half-dozen regular starters like Suh, Dotson and Perriman will put a sizeable dent in their $92 million of available cap space (the third most in the NFL). While they’ll want to keep the bulk of their young defence in tact, the priorities remain two-fold: Shaq Barrett and Jameis Winston.
Back in December, Arians said that Barrett “ain’t going anywhere”. Alas, the Pro Bowl linebacker only signed for a year so if he’s staying, he’s gonna get paid. And if he’s not staying, he’s still gonna get paid. They could franchise tag him but if not, a DT like Javon Kinlaw (South Carolina) or Iowa’s edge rusher AJ Epenesa could be Round 1 draft targets.
As for quarterback, heaven only knows what they’ll do. At 67, Arians can’t wait forever for Winston to eradicate the errors. After their final game, he summed up the dilemma perfectly: “There’s so much good, and so much outright terrible.”
So do the highs outweigh the lows enough to pay Winston the $25m he could expect? It’s hard to tell.
They could move him on and get a bridge quarterback (a la Dalton or Bridgewater). They might keep him – possibly on a franchise tag – but still sign a new young thing to wait in the wings in case he goes turnover-crazy again. (And since his 30 TD/30 INT season ended, he’s had eye surgery so maybe we can expect something nearer 20/20 next year?) Or they could just let him compete against some of the game’s best QBs in a crowded free agent market, and sign a newbie. Whatever the case, Arians likes ‘em big and strong, so Oregon’s Justin Herbert, Oklahoma’s Jalen Hurts or Jacob Eason from Washington could well be in the frame when they’re on the clock at the NFL Draft with pick #14.
So in summary, Buccaneers fans should be looking ahead to the coming year with a degree of optimism… as long as they can tie down a few of their best performers (#ShackleShaq) and solve The Great Winston Conundrum.
Oh, and there are some snazzy new uniforms in the pipeline…