By Jason Keidel
When pondering the NFL’s most essential teams, Tampa Bay is rarely high on the list.
Yet they’ve had odd growth spurts since entering the league in 1976. The Bucs lost their first 26 games but made the NFC title game in 1979.
Fast forward 20 years, when Tony Dungy slowly built them into a behemoth. While Dungy didn’t get a chance to feast on the fruits of his labor, Jon Gruden led the Buccaneers to their lone Super Bowl title in 2002.
But between ascents, they’ve been one of the more forlorn franchises in the sport. The Bucs have had 11 coaches in club history, and only two have winning records (Dungy and Gruden). Maybe that’s about to change.
Fast forward another 15 years. What are the Buccaneers? Are they a team on the come, with an all-world wideout and a young franchise quarterback? Are they the team that’s won four straight games, and only getting better? Or are they a mediocre, 7-5 team stuck in the muck of pretenders?
During their four-game tear, Tampa Bay has had some rather impressive victories, including one against perennial Super Bowl contender Seattle Seahawks and two surprising road wins at Kansas City and San Diego. (The Chiefs and Seahawks entered this week a combined 17-6-1.)
Still, they have a conflicted resume. Tampa Bay is one of two teams over .500 that has scored fewer points than they’ve allowed. (Miami is the other.)
The Buccaneers have surrendered a woeful 366 yards per game, 22nd in the NFL. That includes a troubling 116.1 yards on the ground, which ranks 25th. As teams play a more conservative brand of ball later in the season, Tampa Bay will have to plug those chasms in their run defense if they even want to reach the playoffs, much less advance.
But, as with all teams, the Bucs will ride as far as their quarterback’s arm will take them. Which means Tampa Bay is tethered to Jameis Winston, the charismatic quarterback who oozes a contagious spunk that has the locals believing. Winston is 11th in yardage (3,180) and eighth in touchdowns (23). But he has yet to cement himself as a consistent high-end performer, evidenced by his completion percentage (61. 7), which is 23rd, and his passer rating (90.0), which is 20th. Winston has also thrown 12 interceptions, tied for fifth most in the league.
It would help if Tampa had a rugged running game to nurse Winston during his football maturation. But Pro Bowl RB Doug Martin has had trouble staying healthy, playing in just five of the team’s 12 games, with just 313 total yards and two touchdowns. Quite a contrast from 2015, when he bulldozed the sport. Last year Martin played in all 16 games, averaged nearly five yards per carry (4.9) and rushed for 1,402 yards. Without Martin in the lineup the bulk of the season, Tampa Bay’s running game has sagged to 17th in the league, with just 104.9 yards per game.
Perhaps no playoff contender has been more overlooked than Tampa Bay. Part of that is their solemn history. Part of that is their lack of a transcendent player, or at least not one who we’ve noticed. It’s clear that WR Mike Evans is quickly asserting himself as a great player. Lavonte David is one of the game’s preeminent linebackers, but with highlights largely reserved for touchdown dances, you’ve likely not heard of him. They also aren’t a flagship franchise, nor do they play in a media hub, like New York City or Chicago.
But winning is the best billboard for any franchise. With the Atlanta Falcons slipping back to the pack, the Buccaneers are tied for first place in the NFC South. Three of their final four games are against division foes, so their path to the playoffs is entirely in their hands. And it starts this weekend, at home, against the New Orleans Saints.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.