With the 2013 season officially in the books the Eye on Football staff is looking ahead to the offseason for all 32 NFL teams. Up now: The Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Imagine falling into a(n admittedly metaphorical) well, brushing yourself off, standing up and then finding a trap door under your feet. That was the first half of the season for the Bucs, who struggled out to an 0-8 in 2013 even though the team's play was the least of their problems.
The fiery Greg Schiano -- since deposed -- did not make things easy on anyone in and around the Bucs organization. The Josh Freeman saga was an absolute debacle, there was a little bit of Darrelle Revis drama floating around. There were Fidel Castro references. Billboards popped up. Nick Carter went in on Schiano. Hazmat suits!
That Thursday night game against the Panthers was the nadir of the Bucs season. They fell to 0-7 and all look lost. Don't get me wrong. There wasn't a storybook ending after that. 4-12 isn't impressive but Tampa showed signs of life down the stretch in 2013 that, coupled with a coaching change, could result in positive returns next season.
A Week 9 loss to the Seahawks was nearly the upset of the season, with Tampa leading 21-0 in Seattle in the first quarter. The Bucs would then rip off three-straight wins and prompt discussion about Schiano saving his job. 1-4 down the stretch would eliminate that possibility.
After firing Schiano and GM Mark Dominik, the Glazer family moved swiftly, landing ex-Bears coach Lovie Smith, who should be a welcome change in Tampa.
What Went Right
Despite the record, there was a lot to like about the Bucs. Mike Glennon made serious strides as a passer and was, for my money, the best rookie quarterback in the NFL last season. That's a low bar but Glennon flashed impressive improvement from his senior year at NC State to the Bucs preseason and even more during the year. Despite having no running game to speak of, Glennon tossed 19 touchdowns and completed just a hair under 60 percent of his passes. He was vastly better than even the most optimistic Glennon fan expected.
Darrelle Revis, who cost the Bucs a first-round pick, could've been the 2013 Comeback Player of the Year. The season wasn't perfect for the All-Pro cornerback and plugging him into a zone defense was perplexing and probably frustrating. But he clearly felt better as the year went along and that should bode well for 2014.
Lavonte David might be the most underrated player in football. He should've been a Pro Bowler for sure, but at least he got the All-Pro love. A lot of people remember his gaffe of a push against Geno Smith in the Bucs Week 1 loss, but don't sleep on this kid. He's special and could really blossom even more in Lovie's defense.
Gerald McCoy had another very nice season. He's another criminally underrated guy who's been fantastic when he's healthy and he led the team in sacks (nine) in 2013.
Vincent Jackson keeps paying dividends as a free agent acquisition; he piled up more than 1,200 yards and seven touchdowns. Tim Wright was a quiet bright spot at tight end, catching five touchdowns. Bobby Rainey emerged out of nowhere to produce at the running back spot after Doug Martin and Mike James both went down.
DONALD PENN CAUGHT A TOUCHDOWN PASS.
What Went Wrong
The Freeman thing was an absolute mess. Maybe Schiano didn't love the guy. But it's hard to imagine he would ever purposely submarine someone whose performance is so directly related to his own job security. It just shook out in an ugly fashion, although Schiano looked a lot smarter after encore performance of his nightmare season with the Vikings.
Is it good or bad to have a pair of early-season losses at the last second? The Bucs lost to the Jets and Saints in the final 10 seconds of the game and set some sort of record in doing so. It's a whole different world if they win those games (and they should have) and start 2-0, even if they only finish 6-10.
Carl Nicks is the opposite of V-Jax; he simply hasn't worked out as a big free-agent addition, mainly because he can't stay on the field. Minus McCoy, the quarter of defensive lineman that Dominik drafted in 2010 and 2011 don't look great. Adrian Clayborn had six sacks and he was tied with David for the second-most sacks on the team. Brian Price is no longer on the team and Da'Quan Bowers has just 5.5 sacks in his career at this point.
Martin's injury was a nightmare, mainly because the man known as Muscle Hamster had such a promising rookie year in 2012. He averaged only 3.6 yards per carry and played in only six games but the latter might end up being a good thing for his production in 2014. The offensive line as a whole didn't block well, and when you've got a rookie quarterback and a third-string running back, that always equates to bad things. Mike Williams, who looked like a guy who could build on a big 2012 heading into last season, played in only six games and ended up with 216 receiving yards.
When you tally up all the "bad" things that happened to the Bucs in 2013, there aren't that many spots that
Let's give this award to David, mainly because he deserves more hardware. The linebacker ended up with 145 total tackles, 6.5 sacks, five interceptions, nine pass deflections and a pair of forced fumbles. It was an absolutely mammoth season.
Schiano. It's just too easy to pin the bad season on him. What's really crazy is that the Browns allegedly wanted to hire him before settling on Mike Pettine.
What Has Happened Since the End of the Season
Schiano was fired along with Dominik. Enter Lovie Smith who you probably remember from his last head coaching gig with the Bears in 2012, when he got fired after winning 10 games. (That's two more than Marc Trestman won this year. Awkward.)
I've never been a huge fan of Smith's offensive attack and Smith's been knocked for being too calm on the sidelines. But for the Bucs right now? He's a perfect fit. Schiano drew tons of press and most of it bad. There were reported squabbles with players. Lovie commands respect from every man in his locker room; that's an enduring theme you hear from his days in Chicago. He won't have off-field personnel distractions. He should come in and elevate a team with a strong roster quickly.
Lovie was a major part of hiring Jason Licht as GM to replace Dominik; those two should be in lock-step moving forward on personnel moves.
Outside of striking quickly to land the guys the wanted as coach and GM, the Bucs have been quiet this offseason so far. That's a good thing.
Impending Free Agents
Tampa's got a long list of potential free agents, but none of them are particularly devastating. Like, at all. The club's in a remarkably strong position to retain their current roster.
Fullback Erik Lorig is a fullback but the Bucs are going to run a lot. Tiquan Underwood surprised in 2013 but ideally he's not your No. 2. Linebackers Adam Hayward and Jonathan Casillas are potential plug-in guys and/or depth. Jamon Meredith gives them depth on the offensive line.
The rest of the rest, unrestricted: Ted Larsen, Daniel Te'o-Nesheim, Derek Landri, Gabe Carimi, Rian Lindell, Gary Gibson, Jamon Meredith, Jacob Cutrera, Dekoda Watson, Danny Gorer, Andrew Economos, Brian Leonard, Dan Orlavsky, Lawrence Tynes, Spencer Larsen, Deveron Carr, Nate Byham, Michael Hill, Kyle Adams and Jordan Rodgers.
Free-Agency Game Plan
There aren't many splashes the team could make, really, given the nature of this free agent class. It wouldn't be surprising if Tampa waited to see how the market shook out and then pursued some quality offensive line talent or a pass rusher at a reasonable cost. (Let's go ahead and rule them out on Michael Bennett?) Bringing in a quality veteran backup quarterback is almost a must. Given the nature of the situation, it would at least be appealing for the vets out there.
Spotrac.com has the Bucs with $13 million in cap space.
Draft Game Plan
This is where it gets interesting. Do Licht and Lovie -- who are tied together going forward, contractually speaking -- believe in Glennon as the future at quarterback? It seems they like him enough, especially given how run-heavy the offense should be, that they won't use the No. 7 overall pick on his replacement.
Instead there are a couple different directions Tampa could go. They could grab someone like Khalil Mack or Anthony Barr to boost their pass rush. Picking up Sammy Watkins -- easily the most talented wideout in this class -- or Eric Ebron -- a versatile, dynamic tight end -- would do wonders for the offense's ability to improve in 2014.
They could also opt to grab a tackle like Jake Matthews or Greg Robinson if they fall, put them at right tackle and prep them to take over for Penn eventually.
Pass rushers and offensive lineman should be primary targets for the Bucs and seeing them nab a quarterback in a later round wouldn't be surprising at all either.
Ridiculously Premature Prediction for 2014
It's not hard to envision a bounceback for Tampa Bay in 2014. That defense has the potential to be loaded and we haven't even discussed young talents like Mark Barron and Johnthan Banks as well as big-hitter Dashon Goldson. If they can add a pass rusher or two, under Smith's tutelage this unit could be a big-time sleeper for a strong season in 2014.
The offense is the weaker side of the ball but Glennon should improve again knowing he'll be under center. Adding another weapon to go with Jackson, a healthy Martin and an improved offensive line could make this a dangerous unit.
Lovie's ability to stabilize the Bucs might not result in a total 180-degree flip and a 12-win season. But it's no impossible to envision Tampa, if they make the right moves this offseason and catch some breaks next year, becoming Chiefs-lite and challenging in the NFC South in 2014.
For now we'll hedge, mostly because their 2014 opponents don't look like a last-place slate.
Predicted Record: 8-8