Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Navigating Rough Waters

By: Robert Craft

TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services

The undeniable sting of defeat engulfed the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after their 31-23 loss to the Detroit Lions in the divisional round of the NFL playoffs.

It hung thick in the visitor’s locker room at Ford Field, where players dressed mostly in silence and exchanged hugs with one another and with coaches and other staffers on their way to the buses that would transport them to the airport for a long flight back south.

Moral victories garner nothing in the NFL, so the team members who spoke to the media didn’t hide their disappointment. They had failed in their quest for a Super Bowl victory, a goal they set for themselves back in the dog days of summer.

It was a goal they maintained all year, even amid a bleak 1-6 stretch at midseason, before a hot streak positioned them to finish 9-8 and the NFC South crown. Then they beat the Philadelphia Eagles 32-9 in the Wild Card round.

Real talk: The Buccaneers had no business playing in the divisional round of the playoffs. Not on paper, and definitely not based on how they looked on the field earlier this season.

Many concluded in the preseason that the Buccaneers caught in the awkward spot of rebuilding while trying to cling to a few pieces from their Super Bowl victory three years ago would be one of the worst teams in the league this year.

Quarterback Baker Mayfield might not have agreed with those preseason projections, but he understood them.

Once the former top-pick-turned-journeyman locked in on Bucs coach Todd Bowles’ vision, he shared the belief that he and his teammates were capable of far exceeding outside expectations.

So, the Buccaneers went to work, began building, overcame deficiencies and growing pains, steadily improved and transformed themselves into one of the NFL’s better teams.

Mayfield, signed to a one-year, $4 million contract in March, embraced the massive challenge of succeeding Tom Brady by turning in a career year (4,044 passing yards, 28 touchdowns, 10 interceptions and a 64.3 completion percentage). He served as the poster child for this team’s resolve.

This season, Bowles was the catalyst for Tampa Bay’s success. Bowles was much maligned because of a tenuous four seasons with the Jets and the Buccaneers’ 8-9 drop-off last year, Bowles was believed to be lame duck when Tampa Bay officials began preparing for this season.

Purging the roster of aging stars and their bloated salaries would force younger players into duty; often before they were ready. Bowles doubled down and believed growth and a competitive campaign were possible.

He made the tough call to overhaul his coaching staff, parting with some figures who played key roles in Tampa Bay’s Super Bowl win. And he entrusted the offense to two discounted figures: Mayfield and offensive coordinator Dave Canales.

Bowles, meanwhile, intensified his efforts as a defensive mastermind. He started his workdays an hour earlier than his first season as head coach and two hours earlier than his days as the defensive coordinator. That meant he was reporting to Bucs headquarters at 3:30 a.m. every day in 2023.

He didn’t, however, change his leadership style, and his stoic and patient approach was exactly what the team needed as it persevered through challenging times.

But players say there are other levels to Bowles’ personality and the way he connects and motivates.

Tampa Bay has 20 pending free agents, including Mayfield, wide receiver Mike Evans and defensive stars Devin White, Lavonte David, Antoine Winfield. But Bowles, who delivered the best coaching job of his career, firmly believes his team can mount another Super Bowl chase next season.

Time will tell.

Walking the Plank

By: Robert Craft

TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services

There was no way for the Bucs to find another quarterback who could command the offense the way Brady did. So, they chose to give the gifted but unsuccessful Baker Mayfield a chance and allow room for the development of second-year passer Kyle Trask.

The  Bucs will be dependent on much more than whoever is throwing the ball. They will need solid coaching, an improved running game, dependable receivers, and a better defense. It will take many to replace the greatest in the history of the game.

I feel like the Bucs, without Tom Brady, have fallen off the face of the earth. Has there ever been a team that went from winning a Super Bowl two short years ago to fighting for relevance within its own division this fast? (OK, let’s leave the Rams out of this.)

Let’s start with the reality that Tampa was somewhat limited by salary cap issues they knew would come due (such as $35 million in the wake of Tom Brady’s retirement). Releasing running back Leonard Fournette ($5 million) and several others totaling $75 million in dead money … yikes. Nothing like biting the bullet for 2023- and Tampa Bay has lead teeth.

The Bucs defense is easiest to trust, and they will have to sustain dominance to give their tender offense the chance to score. Overall, they ranked in the top half of the league in most defensive stats last season, being top 10 in sacks and third down stops.

Devin White’s performance has tailed off a bit since his All-Pro season in 2020, nevertheless he is a supremely gifted linebacker and at 25 he probably has not yet played his best ball.

White should be more motivated than ever. He reportedly requested a trade in the offseason because he wants his contract reworked.

The Bucs exercised the option year of his rookie contract and he will be a free agent after this season, barring an extension or tag.

White knows the cost of middle linebackers has gone up in the last year with Roquan Smith, Fred Warner, and Tremaine Edmunds signing new deals. White and the defense need to play at  an extremely high level for the Bucs to have anywhere close to a successful season.

I like GM Jason Licht’s philosophy of drafting BIG with his top three picks this year — two front-seven players on defense and an offensive tackle. Add free-agent acquisition Greg Gaines from the Rams at defensive tackle, and this group has gotten a nice makeover on a limited budget.

Also, it’s year 2 under head coach Todd Bowles, and roles should be defined more clearly after the awkward departure of Bruce Arians last offseason.

On offense, I struggle with Baker Mayfield. He is on his fourth team since being the first pick in the 2018 draft. I have less faith in Kyle Trask.

The Bucs’ inexperience at running back and lack of depth in the perimeter leave me with more questions than answers for this offense.

Today, I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt as the division winner from 2022, even if it was with an 8-9 record.

At least they have that Super Bowl trophy to shine up if all else fails. If the future’s looking bad, why not live in the past Tampa Bay?

 

Draft Board

By: Kenneth Harrison

TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services

The 2021 NFL Draft will start April 29 in Cleveland, Ohio.

We have plenty of time to speculate how teams will address their needs leading up to that.

Let’s take a look around the NFC South and look at who these teams should select with their first-round pick.

Atlanta: The Falcons started the season with five losses and finished with a 4 – 12 record. Dan Quinn was fired after the slow start.

Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator Arthur Smith was hired as head coach once their season ended. As OC for the past two years in Nashville Smith showed us that he knows how to force feed Derrick Henry.

Atlanta has the 4th overall pick and they have a decision to make. Should they move on from Matt Ryan and draft a young quarterback? Or do they believe in the offense and select a player to help on the porous defense?

If they want to keep Ryan, then Alabama corner back Patrick Surtain II is the best pick. I feel old because I remember his dad from Madden 2003. He’s the best corner in the draft and he would instantly help the secondary.

If they decide to go with a quarterback, they will have to choose from Trey Lance (North Dakota St.), Mac Jones (Alabama) or Zach Wilson (BYU). I think Wilson is the best out of these three and should strongly be considered if he’s still on the board.

Carolina: The Panthers were 5 – 11 in 2020 and have the 8th pick.

All-World running back Christian McCaffrey missed the majority of the season. They don’t have many offensive weapons other than McCaffrey.

They did add quarterback Teddy Bridgewater and speedy receiver Robby Anderson in free agency last year. Anderson did have 95 receptions, 1,096 yards and 3 scores but he’s not a number one receiver.

Florida tight end Kyle Pitts would be a great addition. Pitts is 6’6, 246 pounds and a very good athlete. In 8 games he had 43 catches, 770 yards and 12 touchdowns. He could have an impact like Travis Kelce does for the Chiefs.

Quarterback could also be an option if they like the players that will still be available.

New Orleans: The Saints (12 – 4) have the 28th pick. First ballot Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees is expected to retire. They pick so late in the first round that quarterback is not an option.

Tulsa linebacker Zaven Collins would be a good pick. He’s 6’4, 260 pounds and versatile. He blocked two kicks on special teams. He had a career high 14 tackles against an SEC team (Arkansas).

South Carolina corner Jaycee Horn could also be an option. His father Joe was a receiver for the Saints.

Tampa Bay: The Bucs (11 – 5) won the Super Bowl in Tom Brady’s first season with the team. They are strong on offense so they will probably draft a defensive player.

Texas linebacker Joseph Ossai would be a good pick. In 9 games this season he had 54 tackles and 5 sacks.

Iowa defensive tackle Daviyon Nixon might also be considered. He had 45 tackles, 5.5 sacks and a forced fumble in 8 games.

The Big Game

By: Kenneth Harrison

TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services

The matchup for Super Bowl LV is set, Kansas City (14-2) versus Tampa Bay (11-5).

Tom Brady led the Buccaneers to the Super Bowl in his first season with the team and his tenth appearance in the big game.

Tampa Bay will be the first team to play in the Super Bowl in their home stadium.

When it comes to this it seems like a technicality because there have been teams that played in their hometown but not stadium.

For instance, the 1979 Los Angeles Rams played Super Bowl XIV at the Rose Bowl. The 1984 San Francisco 49ers played Super Bowl XIX at Stanford Stadium.

This is a matchup of the young upstart QB against the greatest of all time.

The Chiefs are defending champions, led by Patrick Mahomes. Mahomes was second in the league in passing yards with 4,740, 38 touchdowns and 6 interceptions. Brady was third with 4,633, 40 TD’s and 12 picks.

Both teams are loaded with offensive weapons. Tight end Travis Kelce is fifth in receptions (105) and second in receiving yards (1,416) in the league, which includes wide receivers. He also had 11 touchdowns. Tyreek Hill had 87 receptions for 1,276 yards and 15 touchdowns.

Tampa Bay’s star play makers have missed a few games this season with injuries.

Mike Evans had 70 catches, 1,006 yards and 13 TD’s. Chris Godwin played in 12 games with 65 receptions, 840 yards and 7 touchdowns. Rob Gronkowski had 45 catches, 623 yards and 7 touchdowns. The Buccaneers also have two talented running backs, Leonard Fournette and Ronald Jones.

These teams met in Week 12 in Tampa. Kansas City won 27 – 24, but the game did not seem as close as the final score.

The Chiefs led 20 – 7 at halftime and the Bucs scored 14 points in the fourth quarter. Hill had 13 receptions, 269 yards and 3 touchdowns. The number one priority will be to stop him in this game.

Tampa Bay is 6th in total defense and Kansas City is 16th. The Chiefs are average on defense but in today’s NFL they just need to outscore opponents.

The road to the Super Bowl was very different for these teams. The Bucs were the fifth seed in the NFC, so they had to play three road games. They beat Washington, New Orleans and Green Bay to get here. The NFC Championship was a hard fought 31 – 26 win over the Packers.

“Tom is the GOAT (greatest of all time),” said Bucs receiver Scotty Miller, who caught a 39-yard touchdown pass with 1 second left until halftime. “Last year, we ended 7-9. This year, we’re going to the Super Bowl. He’s the biggest reason.”

The Chiefs were the number one seed in the AFC so they had home field advantage and a bye week in the first round.

They played Cleveland in the divisional round and won 22 – 17. Mahomes was knocked out of the game with a concussion.

In the AFC Championship they beat Buffalo 38 – 24. There were several times in the game where both teams got into scuffles.

I think this is going to be a very close game. Losing the first meeting should give Tampa Bay an advantage because they know what to expect.

Also, Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bienimy is the hottest candidate to get a head coaching job. This has to provide some distraction for him going in to this game.

Rooting for Tom Brady?

By: JJ Lanier

TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services

For the past eighteen years, I’m not sure if there’s an NFL player I have liked less than Tom Brady. (I don’t count the year he took over for Drew Bledsoe because both he and New England were underdogs, and even I enjoy an underdog story.)

When other quarterbacks around the league yelled at their teammates or got in their face for making a mistake, a la Dan Marino back in the day, I viewed them as motivators who cared about winning. When Brady did it, I vilified him as a jackass.

While I applauded players for their business endeavors outside of football, I thought Brady was pompous for basically everything that had to do with his TB12 brand.

He was the rare player where I knew I viewed him through a hypocritical lens, but I didn’t care.

Yet, to my own dismay, there I was a few weeks ago watching Tampa and Chicago play on a Thursday, actually rooting for Brady.

It was as if I was having an out of body experience and my soul kept yelling at me, “No, don’t do it!”

Obviously, one of the reasons for my change of heart is that Brady no longer plays for New England. I’ve always put Patriot players in the same category as New York Yankee players- I can’t pull for them while playing for their respective teams but have no issue rooting for them once they leave.

But the main reason I’m starting to see Brady in a different light has to do with the year he’s having. Up to this point of the season, when you look at some of the major categories we use to determine a quarterback’s success- completion percentage, td/int ratio, yards per completion) the 43 year old is above his career average in every one.

And it’s not like this season is the continuation of a downward trajectory that still happens to be better than average. You could’ve made that argument over the last two or three seasons, but statistically speaking, Brady is on pace to have his best overall season in five years.

There’s no denying Brady and Belechick had a great run together with the Patriots but entering this season I was interested to see how each would adjust without the other.

My original hope was that both would implode, and I would revel in their struggles; it’s good to know New England is holding up their end.

It’s probably been four or five years since I allowed myself to admit that Tom Brady is the greatest quarterback to have played in the NFL.

Since that time, all he’s done is win a couple more Super Bowls and continued to be one of the best in the game.

The fact he’s doing this at an age when most of his peers have either already hung up their cleats or are barely clinging to a team, makes what he is accomplishing even more impressive.

I know there will be some that will argue he was surrounded by great talent and coaching, but so was Joe Montana, Peyton Manning, John Elway, and basically every other Hall of Fame quarterback you can mention.

And of course, there are those who will scream “Deflategate” at the top of their lungs, and while I won’t disagree with you, in my mind Brady has done enough to overcome that rebuttal in regards to him being the best ever.

That said, I still cringe a little saying these nice things about him, just not as much as I used to.

Sinking Ship?

By: Kipp Branch

TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services

For months I have tried to tell anyone who would listen to not crown the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as Super Bowl Champions just yet.

It took the Bucs only one week to prove it.

All of the preseason hype surrounding the Bucs came crashing down in the Superdome last Sunday as the New Orleans Saints showed the experts why they are the team to beat in the NFC South currently.

So, what was wrong with Tampa last Sunday other than being crowned as Super Bowl Champions in August?

The spin from the Bay is they didn’t have OTAs. They didn’t have a preseason. The offense has a ton of new pieces, moving parts and a brand new quarterback in Tom Brady. There were bound to be some speed bumps on the road to a world title.

Breaking news; nobody in the NFL had OTA’s, or a preseason, and you have the GOAT.

You can’t use the classic we have a new QB excuse, can you Tampa? You can spin that with a rookie, but not a 6-time Super Bowl champion QB in Tom Brady.

Brady is the GOAT, and if Tampa does not live up to the hype this year it damn sure won’t be because of Tom Brady.

This is the NFL and even the all-time greats may toss a pick-six now and then. Brady did toss for 239 yards and 2-TD’s.

He did throw the ugly pick six. Mike Evans was dealing with a hamstring issue and only had one catch for two yards, but it was a touchdown catch. Evans will get healthy to be the deep threat Brady has been missing since he had Randy Moss in New England.

Despite the loss against the Saints, the offense had their moments. The unit moved the ball and actually out-gained New Orleans in total yards.

The offense has to run the ball better moving forward. Ronald Jones II had 66 yards rushing, but once Leonard Fournette gets up to speed in this offense look for this combo to take some of the heat off of the passing game.

The running game needs to click this week because Pro Bowl wide receiver Chris Godwin is experiencing delayed-onset symptoms after a hit to the head last week and is in the concussion protocol for Week 2.

What I was impressed with last week was the Tampa defense. Yeah, they gave up some points but held Drew Brees to only 160 yards passing and played well, so there is plenty to build from on this side of the ball.

Devin White is a stud at linebacker. This unit will have to step up until the offense comes around. The offense will come around very soon.

As expected, I turned on the TV on Monday and the talking heads on sports shows were kicking dirt already on the Bucs.

Not so fast there experts. I’m going to revise my predictions in the NFC South. With the Saints losing Michael Thomas for a few weeks with a high ankle sprain, and the Falcons looking like complete garbage again on defense I’m picking Tampa to now win the NFC South.

I had the Bucs picked third, but after seeing the potential of the Tampa defense I now pick them to win the division. Brady and the offense will be fine moving forward. The NFC is up for grabs in 2020.

Tampa Bay hosts the Carolina Panthers on Sunday, which will be exactly what the doctor ordered for the Bucs to cure a week one hangover from New Orleans.

Honestly have you ever left New Orleans without a hangover?

Down South

By: Kenneth Harrison

TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services

Week 1 of the NFL season is in the books. Let’s take a look at what happened around the NFC South after the first week of games.

Seattle 38, Atlanta 25: The Falcons defense looked just as bad as they have the last few seasons. Russell Wilson completed 31 of 35 passes for 322 yards and 4 touchdowns.

He also had three runs for a team-high 29 yards rushing. Atlanta sacked Wilson 3 times but that did not slow him down.

Matt Ryan threw for 450 yards, 2 touchdowns and an interception.

Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley and Russell Gage each had 9 receptions for over 100 yards.

In Todd Gurley’s first game as a Falcon he rushed 14 times for 56 yards and a TD.

Atlanta outgained Seattle 506 yards to 383 but came up short all four times they tried to convert on fourth down.

The one good thing for the Falcons is Ryan surpassed John Elway for ninth on the NFL career passing yardage list.

Las Vegas 34, Carolina 30: Matt Rhule made his coaching debut as the Panthers head coach.

They had the best defense in the NFL just a few seasons ago, now they need all the help they can get.

The Raiders offense did whatever they wanted.

Second year running back Josh Jacobs rushed for 93 yards and 3 touchdowns.

Derek Carr threw for 239 yards and a score.

This was the first game for the Raiders since moving from Oakland to Las Vegas. Gruden didn’t hold back on praising Jacobs.

“That was a little bit like Walter Payton used to play,” Gruden said. “It was hot as hell. He got beat up early. He insisted on coming back and he insisted on getting the ball as a runner and receiver. He is special. He deserves some national attention — and I hope you give it to him.”

This was Teddy Bridgewater’s first game as the Panthers QB.

He had a solid game, completing 22 of 34 passes for 270 yards and a touchdown.

Former New York Jets receiver Robby Anderson also made his Carolina debut and played well. He had 6 receptions for 115 yards and a touchdown.

Of course, Christian McCaffrey had another great game. He ran for 96 yards and 2 touchdowns and he had 38 yards receiving.

New Orleans 34. Tampa Bay 23: This was the most anticipated game of the day. We all know Tom Brady left New England this offseason to become a Buccaneer.

He has a ton of offensive weapons. The Saints also feature a geriatric quarterback surrounded by playmakers.

This was the first game featuring two starting quarterbacks in their forties and they played like it.

The game started good for Brady. He rushed for a touchdown to give Tampa an early 7-0 lead.

It was downhill from there. He threw two picks and one of them was returned for a touchdown. Jameis Winston had to see himself in Brady as he watched from the Saints sideline.

“I made some just bad, terrible turnovers,” Brady said. “I obviously have got to do a lot better job.”

Drew Brees only threw for 160 yards and 2 TD’s. Alvin Kamara had a rushing and receiving score.

Surprisingly Michael Thomas only had 3 catches for 17 yards.

The New Crew

By: JJ Lanier

TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services

NBA franchises were forming Super Teams or The Big Three long before LeBron James decided to take his talents to South Beach.

That particular situation is oftentimes looked at as being the origin for the idea because it was the first time the players actually made it happen, as opposed to it coming together through trades or the draft.

Those instances take place more frequently in basketball than any other sport mainly because three players joining together can have more of an impact than say in football or baseball.

That doesn’t mean franchises in those other sports can’t make an attempt in their own right, the approach may just be a little different.

When Tom Brady decided to take his talents a few hundred miles north of South Beach Adjacent you knew Tampa would double down and bring in as many as players as they could to help complement their new quarterback.

The names of some of the players brought in are impressive on paper (Gronkowski, LeSean McCoy, Leonard Fournette) yet they don’t remind me of LeBron and Chris Bosh heading to Miami as much as they do Karl Malone and Gary Payton joining the Lakers.

Gronkowski, arguably the greatest tight end in NFL history, is the headline grabbing name, but who knows what type of production the Bucs will get from him.

Even though he took what amounted to a year sabbatical from the game, remember, he originally retired due to the beating his body and mind were taking.

A year off may help him recover from some of those wounds he already received, but it doesn’t protect him from future ones. The potential to be great is there, alongside OJ Howard, but so is the probability he’ll only play a handful games.

The McCoy acquisition would’ve been bigger news four to five years ago, but there’s not much left in the tank for the former fantasy football stud. I can’t see his impact on the field being more than minimal, at this point.

Which leaves us with the newly signed Fournette, who may wind up being the best signing of the group.

The young running back’s time in Jacksonville ended earlier than expected for a variety of reasons, but he’s coming off what statistically was his best year as a professional.

The improvements he’s made catching the ball out of the backfield, combined with his ability to pass block (extremely important with Brady under center) and his 4.0 yards per carry, expect Fournette to get a majority of the carries throughout the season, especially during crunch time.

Playing with Brady should allow Fournette to see a lot more openings as he faces less man fronts.

I may be a prisoner of the moment, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see him put up Pro Bowl type numbers throughout the season.

Brady is definitely an upgrade over Jameis Winston and the potential for their newly acquired players to contribute, along with players like OJ Howard and Mike Evans, could make the offense in Tampa Bay one of the more exciting ones to watch.

There aren’t any super teams in the NFL, but you can see where Tampa has attempted to make a splash on the offensive side ball.

And even if they are more like the Lakers than the Heat, that’s not exactly a bad thing, the Lakers did make it the Finals that year.