The schedule will be harder. The climb will be steeper. The stakes will be higher.
But, yes, Tampa Bay Bucs coach Lovie Smith said the team should reach the playoffs next season.
“We should,” Smith said in his day-after news conference. “I’m going to go back to, we were 6-6, with a quarter (of the season) to go. That was progress, to get in position, and things looked pretty bright for us. We weren’t quite ready to take that next step then. We will make the corrections, the moves that we have to make in order to finish the 2016 season in the playoffs.”
Smith consistently talked about the progress his team made in climbing from two wins to six, but he still has only eight victories in two seasons.
“I think the message is pretty clear for all of us, it is about next year. ‘Guys, we’re going to be a good football team,” Smith said. “We’ve laid the foundation; now it’s time for us to reap the benefits of that.’ That’s the message going forward. If you believe in what we’re doing right now, we all will do more, and we’re going to have better success next year. Once we get to a point where it’s a critical time, we’re going to get over the hump next time. The culture of [not] having losing seasons is just a year away. Guys believe that.”
The Bucs will pick ninth in the upcoming draft. The team desperately needs to improve its pass coverage and its secondary.
“My glass, of course, is always half full, but I think it’s safe to say that, yes, when I talk about foundational pieces, we have a lot of those in place,” Smith said. “The young players you mentioned: Donovan Smith, left tackle, started the entire year; Ali Marpet, playing most of the year; and of course, Jameis. So, yes. Then you now go to the defensive side of the football, the one draft pick we did have defensively, Kwon (Alexander), being our mike linebacker. If we can have that type of success coming up, there’s no reason to think that we can’t make another big jump on our record as much as anything I’m talking about.”
Smith acknowledged he was not pleased with his team’s secondary.
“When you do that much shuffling, you’re searching, that’s what you are,” Smith said. “I think it’s safe to say we didn’t play as well as we need to in the secondary. There are a lot of reasons for that. When you have a group that you’re working with and you don’t feel like you’re getting the type of play that you need to win, you look at other options. We kept doing that right up until the last game. That’s not a good thing. At the same time, you want to be able to see everybody that you have on your roster. I think we gave everybody an opportunity to show what they can do. We’ll make decisions based on that.”
A lot of Smith’s optimism is based on rookie quarterback Jameis Winston, who became the third rookie to pass for more than 4,000 yards. Winston, however, didn’t seem pleased with his season.
“The thing is, I just want to win here,” Winston said. “I know what we’re capable of. We left so much on the table this year. The individual accomplishments, you can talk about Doug (Martin), you can talk about how good our offensive line was, but, at the end of the day, I just want everyone to better themselves.”