For all the talk of Rookie of the Year, for all of the flirtation with the NFL rushing leader, for all the discussion about a playoff berth, the Tampa Bay Bucs concluded their 2015 season in familiar fashion Sunday evening.
Once again, they lost.
Once again, they finished in last place.
The Bucs were blown out by the Carolina Panthers (15-1) to take over the cellar for the fifth straight season. Tampa Bay took a 3-0 lead in the first period, but Carolina erupted for 24 points in the second period.
“That’s not exactly the way we wanted to end our season,” said Bucs coach Lovie Smith. “You wanted to see a win on the scoreboard with wins at the end of the season. We didn’t see that. It’s disappointing. I thought we’d play better than that.”
Cam Newton threw for 293 yards and two touchdowns and ran for two more.
For the Bucs, Jameis Winston threw for 325 yards (he hit 29 of 47) and became only the third rookie quarterback in history to throw for more than 4,000 yards (4,042). However, Winston was intercepted twice, meaning the Panthers picked him off six times in their two games.
Winston said the team would work on its mentality in the off-season and be a better team. He said that “some of our coaches want it more than some of our players.”
Mike Evans caught four passes for 99 yards before being ejected. Doug Martin entered the game 64 yards behind Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson for the NFL rushing lead, but gained only 48 on 15 carries (30 on one play). Six times this season, the Bucs gave the ball to Martin 15 times or less; they are 0-6 in those games.
Carolina’s Devin Funchess caught seven passes for 120 yards.
Closing poorly is a tradition for the Bucs. Over the last five years, the Bucs’ record in their final four games is 2-18. Over the past 10 years, the Bucs are 9-31 in their final four games.
“We weren’t a good football team in our final four,” Smith said.
So how will 2015 be remembered? If you’re an optimist, it was the year that the team landed Winston. It was the year the run returned. It was the year that Martin resurrected his career. On the other hand, the defense wasn’t good, and the team has a lot of work to do to be a contender for next season.
The Bucs scored as many as 20 points only nine times, and two of those were on last-minute plays against the Rams and Bears.