Buccaneers on brink of breakout season
Eleventh in a 13-part series on the opponents the Green Bay Packers will face during the 2017 regular season.
GREEN BAY - The term “rebuild” isn’t bandied about as much in the NFL as it is with professional basketball or baseball.
By nature, a rebuild denotes long-term progress. It is not a quick fix. In the NFL, where the annual playoff picture remains fluid, patience often isn’t required. Miss the postseason one year, there’s every chance you can find your way to January the next.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers break from that mold. Theirs has been an incremental improvement. From 2-14 in 2014, to 6-10 in 2015, to 9-7 and on the playoff fringe last season, perhaps no NFL team has followed the “rebuild” model as loyally as the Bucs during general manager Jason Licht’s three-year tenure.
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After the franchise’s first winning season since 2010, the next step in the Bucs’ rebuild is clear. They narrowly missed the playoffs last season, finishing with an identical record as the sixth-seeded Detroit Lions, but dropping to the seventh seed because of a worse record against common opponents.
Hungry for their first postseason appearance in a decade – their record since 2007 is an abysmal 54-90, with double-digit wins in a season only once – there’s every chance the Bucs’ trip to Lambeau Field on Dec. 3 could carry major implications for both teams.
Here are three things to know about the Bucs.
» Winston wins: The first priority for any franchise quarterback is to win football games, and 2015 top overall draft choice Jameis Winston has met that responsibility in his first two seasons. As a rookie, the Bucs improved their win total by four over the previous year. That total jumped three more last season. Winston has produced the numbers expected from a top quarterback, earning a Pro Bowl trip as a rookie and exceeding 4,000 passing yards in each of his first two seasons. His touchdown-to-interception ratio is a respectable 50-33 in his two seasons, an efficiency that should get only better with experience. But the true measures of his value is how the Bucs have grown from a 2-14 bottom dweller in the year before Winston arrived to a legitimate playoff contender just two seasons later.
» A QB’s best friend: In a league where few commodities are valued more than a true No. 1 receiving threat, Mike Evans’ value is clear. At the age of just 23, Evans was selected to his first Pro Bowl last season. The 6-foot-5, 231-pound receiver has exceeded 1,000 receiving yards in each of his three seasons, and finished with a career-high 96 catches for 1,321 yards and 12 touchdowns last season. Evans is built like a modern tight end, capable of lining up anywhere on the field, though he’s best on the perimeter. On his own, he presents a difficult matchup for any secondary, but the Bucs weren’t content with having just one great receiver. In free agency they added Desean Jackson, a speedy vertical threat who could be the perfect complement for the big, physical Evans. They drafted tight end O.J. Howard in the first round, locking up the middle of the field with a potential All-Pro talent. A year ago, the Bucs’ No. 2 receiver had exactly half the receiving yards of Evans. They’ll have more depth this fall, and it should make Winston even better.
» The real McCoy: Quietly, Gerald McCoy is putting together an all-time great resume for any defensive tackle. Just 28, McCoy already has been selected to five Pro Bowls. He was a first-team All-Pro in 2013, with second-team selections in 2014 and 2016. And his 42 career sacks already rank fourth in franchise history, behind Lee Roy Selmon, Warren Sapp and Simeon Rice. The Packers' schedule is packed with disruptive interior rushers, but none are better than McCoy.
Packers schedule glimpse
Dec. 3 vs. Buccaneers, noon, Fox
Week before:at Steelers, Nov. 26
Week after:at Browns, Dec. 10
On the horizon: at Panthers, Dec. 17
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Coach:Dirk Koetter (9-7, 2nd season).
2016 record:9-7, second NFC South.
Scoring offense:22.1 points per game (T-18th in NFL).
Total offense: 346.4 yards per game (18th).
Scoring defense:23.1 points allowed per game (15th).
Total defense: 367.9 yards allowed per game (23rd).
Series: Packers lead 32-21-1.
Last meeting:The Packers beat the Bucs 20-3 when they traveled to Tampa Bay on Dec. 21, 2014. It was the first of three straight wins, a late-season run that led to the NFC championship game. Aaron Rodgers completed 31 of 40 passes for 318 yards and a 108.1 rating, Randall Cobb caught 11 passes for 131 yards and Eddie Lacy had his only touchdown run longer than 40 yards in the past three seasons – but it wasn’t the offense that led the way. Behind Clay Matthews (2 1/2 sacks) and Julius Peppers (2), the Packers harassed Bucs quarterback Josh McCown for seven sacks and allowed only 109 yards in one of the best defensive performances of Dom Capers’ tenure.