Five Reasons For Optimism, Doubt in Tampa

If you’ve visited Tampa anytime in the last six months, you’ll notice there’s a different aura in the air. A feeling of excitement, hope, promise, and at long last, victory. There’s also some feeling of nervousness, anxiety, doubt, and maybe more than anything, bad luck, should the virus cripple the season.

The Bucs are the talk of the offseason, there’s no denying that. For the most part, the talk is nothing but positive, but those in the Bay area know better. They have endured some painful memories since 1976 mixed in with some golden ones here and there during the Dungy-Gruden days. This is a team that had Steve Young before they let him go to San Francisco. They heard how great they were going to be when they drafted Vinny Testaverde. They thought Trent Dilfer would turn their luck around only to watch him win a Super Bowl in Tampa…as a Raven. They drafted one of the biggest first round busts in history with Josh Freeman. And then they watched Jameis Winston throw more touchdowns than any other quarterback in history. That is, touchdowns to the other team. Remember, this is also the city that got left at the altar twice by Bill Parcells.

The 2020 Bucs are a mystery. There’s cautious optimism among Bucs fans. They want to look at the glass half-full, but they’ve seen the glass half-empty come to fruition way too many times. So we look at both angles. Here are five reasons to be optimistic as well as doubtful for Bucs fans this season.

The Glass Half-Full

1. They have the GOAT!

In case you’ve been spending your time in the basement the last 6 months during COVID-19 without a television, phone, or radio, the Bucs signed that Brady guy. You know, the guy who has so many Super Bowl rings he’s got to use two hands? Yeah, him.

Tom Brady’s presence in Tampa helps their chances without him even having to take a snap. For one, he’s a proven leader that the team needs so desperately right now. They’ve been missing that spark since they won the Super Bowl in 2002. Already in training camp, word is Brady has established himself as a mentor and motivator for the rest of the team. Cameron Brate said he, along with fellow tight end Rob Gronkowski, make others around them better. The other players admire Brady and look up to him like no other quarterback before. You have to go back to Derrick Brooks and John Lynch to perhaps find another player who garnered so much respect from his teammates.

Brady’s style as a passer also helps what they have in the receiving game. He doesn’t need to wear his arm out throwing long passes. The Bucs have the receiving weapons to put dents in the short passing game while also having the ability to stretch the field whenever they want to.

Bottom line is this…Tom Brady makes the Bucs a Super Bowl contender. It’s as simple as that.

2. The Defense

Okay, so it may not be as good as the Monte Kiffen-led squad some 20 years ago, but it sure is a heck of a lot better than the Mike Smith defense from a few years back. Todd Bowles knows how to coach a defense and the players responded to him a year ago, especially during the second half of the season.

Don’t look at the overall rankings. The Bucs were dreadful early in the season, but were a completely different unit the second half. They finished No. 1 in run defense, were No. 4 in forced fumbles and tied for No. 1 in defensive touchdowns. A lot of the problems defensively came from the fact they had a quarterback who kept turning it over, putting their backs against the wall more times than not.

The defensive line is one of the best in the league, led by Ndamukong Suh, Jason Pierre-Paul, William Gholston and Vita Vea. They also have Shaq Barrett who lines up as a lineman most of the time and have linebackers Devin White and Lavonte David who are quickly becoming stars. The area that concerns most Bucs fans is the secondary. They will need rookie safety Antoine Winfield, Jr. and second-year players Sean Murphy-Bunting and Jordan Whitehead to develop this season.

3. Gronk and the WR Corps

Say what you will about Rob Gronkowski’s age, fitness, and time out of football…his chemistry with Brady is one of the best in the game. Early in the season, Brady will need to rely on that while he tries to develop a rapport with his other toys. And he has some good ones to play with. I’m talking about Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Cameron Brate, and O.J. Howard.

The Bucs may have the best receiving corps in football, hands down. It’s something that Brady missed last year in New England when he didn’t have any reputable tight ends to throw to and was spending all his time looking for Julian Edelman. Now, it’s like Christmas for him. He’s got pro bowl talent everywhere he looks.

4. Their Division

The NFC South is not the NFC West, NFC North, or AFC North. Granted, the New Orleans Saints are going to be a difficult team to beat and enter the season as the NFC South favorites. However, they shouldn’t be too scared of the Panthers or Falcons. Both come in following losing seasons and didn’t do anything in the offseason that knocked anyone’s socks off.

The Saints will at the very least make things fun. The Brady vs. Brees battle is already set for week 1 and Jameis on the Saints sideline now as a backup only adds to the drama. If it wasn’t much a rivalry before, it sure as heck is one now.

5. Veteran Presence

We already touched on the leadership that Brady will bring, but there are others on the team that should also help act as mentors for the younger guys on the team.

The signing of Lesean McCoy won’t necessarily make the running game substantially better given his age and “wear and tear” on the body, but it will give two young backs in Ronald Jones and Ke’Shawn Vaughn a leader to model after, one who used to be one of the best backs in the league. Rob Gronkowski should be able to make O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate better tight ends while the defense saw leaders begin to break out a year ago with Shaq Barrett and Lavonte David.

The Bucs are beginning to look like the team that had the veteran presence that won them a Super Bowl 18 years back. That season, they had Brad Johnson, Warren Sapp, John Lynch, Derrick Brooks, and Ronde Barber to help the likes of Brian Kelly, Anthony McFarland, and Dexter Jackson. It could be a similar setup this season.

Glass Half-Empty

1. The Pandemic’s Effect

There are teams that don’t really need a preseason and there’s teams that do. The Bucs are one of those teams that could really use one. Not having any practice games and not having any offseason training workouts really puts this team behind the 8-ball early in the season. After all, when game one rolls around, it will be Tom Brady’s first time ever against an opponent throwing to his wide receivers and managing the game behind a new offensive line. And that opponent happens to be the NFC South champion Saints.

The one saving grace for Brady is he has Gronkowski. The two have chemistry from their days in New England, so if there’s any Buc receiver that’s likely to make Brady settle in early on, it’s him. But the lack of practices is going to hurt his chemistry early on with Mike Evans and Chris Godwin. And Ke’Shawn Vaughn’s lack of reps with no preseason and his time spent in coronavirus quarantine could cost him playing time early on.

2. The O-Line

I don’t care if it’s Joe Montana throwing to Jerry Rice, Michael Irvin, Lynn Swann, and Dwight Clark with Walter Payton carrying the ball. If you don’t have the horses to block for you, your offense will be stuck in neutral or reverse. This could be perhaps the biggest concern among all Bucs fans. They drafted Tristan Wirfs with the first pick to be Brady’s biggest protector, but without a preseason and time to develop, don’t expect him to turn into Orlando Pace or Larry Allen overnight. It’s going to be growing pains.

Jameis Winston wasn’t Tom Brady with the arm, but Tom Brady isn’t Jameis Winston with the legs. When you have an offensive line that’s as big a question mark as it is, having a quarterback that can scramble can save you. Brady isn’t exactly Randall Cunningham. So Bucs fans, say a lot of Hail Mary’s and Our Father’s that the offensive line somehow improves from last year without any offseason or Brady will be getting hit a lot. And when a 43-year old gets hit a lot, those bumps and bruises are magnified.

3. The NFC Has Gotten Better

While yes, the NFC South may only turn out to have one key obstacle in it in the end, the rest of the NFC is loaded. That means if you don’t beat out the Saints for the division, you’re likely going to be trying to win a wildcard against a loaded conference. The Seahawks are getting better; they just added Jamal Adams and D.K. Metcalf could be this year’s breakout wide receiver. The Cardinals are getting better; Kyler Murray is past his rookie bumps and has some serious weapons to throw to, including DeAndre Hopkins. The Vikings are getting better; they addressed a lot of their weaknesses in the offseason. Oh yeah, there’s also the 49ers, the Rams, the Packers, the Eagles, and the Cowboys.

In the end, 10 wins may not be enough to make the playoffs. The only saving grace is the NFL added an extra wildcard this offseason, meaning seven teams from each conference will make
the postseason.

4. Running Back

Adding Lesean McCoy helps add some depth, but the Bucs may still lack the dominant back that can explode for big plays. Ronald Jones is coming off a decent season, but it’s not the kind of season that will have him ranked in the top-10 of your fantasy running backs. Ke’Shawn Vaughn brings hope and potential, but as mentioned above, his lack of reps will cost him playing time.

Running backs always played a big role in Brady’s offense mostly in the form of pass-catchers. I’m just not sure that any of these backs can be the force that Kevin Faulk or James White were behind Brady. Vaughn has the most potential to be that back down the road, but without seeing him yet, the jury is still out.

5. Father Time is No friend

Tom Brady is 43. Ndamukong Suh is 33. Lesean McCoy is 32. Jason Pierre-Paul is 31. Rob Gronkowski is 31, although his body has acted as if he’s 40. The head coach isn’t young, either, at 67. With perhaps the exception of maybe Brady, the Bucs still view all of these guys still in their prime, but for how long? If the season is lost due to the virus, it only makes them older the next time they suit up to play a game.

There’s decent young depth behind many of these guys to keep some optimism in place, but there’s no depth behind Brady. Therefore, if anything happened to the 43-year old quarterback, they would need to rely on Blaine Gabbert. That thought makes all Bucs fans cringe.

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