They entered the draft as the NFL’s worst team.
They exited talking about competing for the division.
That is how much better three days can allow a football team to feel about itself.
The Tampa Bay Bucs, the dregs of the league last year when they finished 2-14, feel that’s how much better the off-season has left them. Outsiders will probably doubt it. A team rarely goes from two victories to contention, and a rookie quarterback is rarely promise upon delivery. Yet, starting with quarterback Jameis Winston and his new weapons — two offensive linemen and two receivers — the Bucs believe they are an improved team upon the one that concluded last year.
“Tremendously better,” said general manager Jason Licht. “Remarkably better. Starting with the hiring of (offensive coordinator) Dirk Koetter. I think were going to prove to a lot of people that we’re a lot better than we were last year.”
There are still some gaps. The Bucs did not address their need for a pass-rusher, for instance. “The well had dried up,” Licht said.
“We can’t solve everything. We can compete for this division with what we’ve got.”
Day three of the draft was a time that the Bucs looked toward the extra pieces of their team. They took linebacker Kwon Alexander first, a player that Licht says will compete for the left outside linebacker position. They followed with Nebraska wide receiver Kenny Bell (pictured), who Licht sees contributing in a rotation. After that, the Bucs took kick returning Keilin Clay, then finished up with 247-pound back Joey Iosefa, who will get a shot at the team’s starting fullback position.
Still, a team doesn’t fluke its way into the No. 1 draft pick. It picks there because it earned it by being so desperately woeful that no one else could keep up. Put it this way: The Titans were awful, and the Jags were terrible, and the Raiders were a joke. Washington was wretched, and Chicago struggled, and Atlanta wasn’t very good.
The Bucs were worse than all of them. They weren’t very good on defense, and they were worse on offense, and they never closed the door on anyone. They had bad quarterbacking, and an awful defensive line, and their secondary chased receivers across the goal line. They were 25th in the league on defense and 30th on offense.
So how good could they be, really?
When a team drafts a quarterback No. 1, it is because things have turned so desperate that it needs the help. Except for Andrew Luck, teams that have taken quarterbacks first have averaged roughly 3 ½ wins the following year. Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman didn’t win a game in 11 starts when he was a rookie.
So keep that in mind as you start to talk about playoffs. Oh, some rookie quarterbacks have succeeded. Dan Marino was great as a rookie, but remember, he joined a team that had just been to the Super Bowl. Ben Roethlisberger was very good, but he didn’t carry the load for the Steelers the way he would eventually. A team that drafts first does so because it usually doesn’t have a lot of answers in place.
Usually, teams that are that build in stages. The Bills won twice in 1985, They won four times in ’86, and seven in ’87 and 12 in ’88. The Cowboys won once in ’89, then seven times in ’90, then 11 in ’90.
So what gives the Bucs hope for 2015?
There is this: If you aren’t judging by the final scores, the Bucs weren’t the worst team in the NFL last year. I know, I know. Final scores are really the only judge, but if you consider that the Bucs lost seven games by a touchdown or less, they’re a bit closer than you might think. This team invented ways to lose last year, which leads to frustration but also a nagging suspicion that the Bucs, while bad, could not be desperate.
If they win three or four of those seven, then they’re a five or six-win team. That isn’t where anyone wants them, but it isn’t that far away.
Then there is this: Winston, for all of his doubters, has been called the finest quarterback prospect since Luck. That has to mean something.
There is this: This year, the Bucs play nine games against the seven worst defenses in the NFL. That has to give Tampa Bay a shot on a lot of Sundays.
There is this: As a division, the NFC South isn’t exactly Murderer’s Row.
There is this: The Super Bowl champion Patriots aren’t on the schedule. Neither are the Super Bowl runner up Seahawks. Nor are the Packers or Broncos or Steelers. In fact, the only playoff teams the Bucs play are the Panthers (twice), the Colts, the Cowboys and the Bengals. That means no Tom Brady, no Aaron Rodgers, no Russell Wilson, no Roethlisberger, no Philip Rivers.
Tampa Bay coach Lovie Smith suggests he is not a coach who shies away from playing young players. He talks about 2005, when Rex Grossman was hurt and he had to play rookie Kyle Orton at quarterback. Orton, a fourth-rounder, came off the bench and won 10 games for the Bears. But that Bears team was ripe. The next year, Grossman took it to the Super Bowl.
There has never been a two-win team that didn’t think it was going to be better the next year. And some bad teams are much better. Miami won only one game in 2007; it won 11 the next year. Indy won two in 2011; the next year, with Luck, it won 11. Kansas City jumped from two wins in 2012 to 11 in 2012. Houston went from two wins in 2013 to nine last year.
But not everyone gets better. Detroit didn’t win at all in 2008, and it won only twice in 2009. St. louis won twice in 2008, only once in 2009. The Bucs won only twice in 1985, and only twice in 1986.
The point is, improvement is not guaranteed. The Bucs will have to play smarter, stronger, faster. Even against a schedule that is not frightening.