What Carolina has achieved, the Tampa Bay Bucs want.
Carolina has 14 wins, up from seven a year ago. The Bucs are at six.
Carolina wrapped up the NFC South weeks ago. The Bucs are third.
Carolina has perhaps the league’s MVP in Cam Newton. Jameis Winston might win Rookie of Year, but that’s a smaller trophy.
In other words, if the Bucs have a team to compare themselves with, it is the Panthers. What Carolina is, the Bucs hope to become.
“They were (a lot like this team a few years ago),” Bucs coach Lovie Smith said, “and that’s what gives us hope too. It seems like you have to be really down and get an opportunity to get a couple of players. Getting Cam Newton sends you in the right direction. Getting Luke Kuechly sends you in the right direction and they have done a great job with their personnel.
“Just kind of stayed the course of who they were. We’ve seen them get better and better, unfortunately for the rest of us in the NFC South – but it is a model of what we’re going to do. We’ve made progress, but we’re not quite there yet, but in time we will be. Again, in order for us to get up on top, we have to be able to compete and beat teams like that.”
Carolina was unbeaten on the season before falling to Atlanta last week. That seems like a team far ahead of the Bucs.
“I haven’t seen a whole lot different,” Smith said. “I can talk an awful lot more about our team, but what they’ve done, they’re committed to their approach on how they win football games. I’m talking about believing strongly in the running game, but I think they’re a little different than all teams in the league. It’s a running game plus one. I’m talking about Newton and the amount of yards he gets running the football each week.”
Winston said he sees the progress that Carolina has made during Newton’s years there.
“I see a great team,” Winston said. “The way that Cam just changed that whole mentality of the program, brought that high spirit, that true love for football to that organization and you see how they just took off – three straight division titles. One thing I always know: To be the best, you have to beat the best. Right now, they are the best. As a Buccaneer, as the quarterback of this team, one day – and I know everyone, we want to be the best, so we know we have to play against those guys, but we fear no one. We’re going to go out there and we’re going to fight them to the end. That’s the great thing about this game, it’s our last game of the season, but we know those guys are going to be out there playing for something because they still have things on their goal list that they have to complete.
“The one thing about that guy that you’ve got to love – he’s a winner. And that’s what I want to be. I want to be a winner. What comes with being a winner is getting the other guys to want to be winners with you. I believe that’s what he did. To answer your question, yes, I can be like Cam, but right now, I’m not. That’s something that I would love to be in the future, but one thing I want someone to always say about me – and what you can say about him right now, especially while he’s growing – he’s a winner. This is a winning business, so that’s pretty good.”
It isn’t just Newton, however. The Panthers also have a solid defense.
“Every team (wants to be like Carolina),” Gerald McCoy said. “It just so happens that they are in our division. They are the division champs three years running. Until somebody takes them down, that’s who they are.”
“Defensively, they are incredible. I think they’re No. 1 in the league right now at taking the ball away, which is what we’re working toward trying to be. Offensively, they’ve been very dominant. They’ve run the ball and then they finish games. Regardless of who is on the field, they make the plays necessary to win and that’s what we have to do. One thing that they have done that I’ve seen in my few years is that they have matured. They have grown up and they play like seasoned vets, regardless of their ages.”
Can the Bucs get there? Maybe someday. Nd offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter said he thinks Winston should be Rookie of the Year.
“Let me preface that by saying to those other candidates how extremely biased I am. With that said, I’ll do my politicking right now, when you have a guy that touches the ball every single offensive snap of the season, that guy is going to be really tough to beat. Not one other guy that you mentioned has touched the ball every snap of the season. You look at everything Jameis has done, his numbers for a rookie quarterback are pretty darn good. Obviously, he has had his ups and downs. Like I said, the three other guys you mentioned (Marcus Mariota, Amari Cooper, Todd Gurley), I have a ton of respect for all three of them, but for a guy to play every snap in his rookie season and to do the things that Jameis has done, to me that’s a no-brainer.”
The Bucs close out their regular season Sunday at 4:25 p.m.