Tampa Bay Buccaneers - 2016 Season in Review

From the outside looking in for just about any other team, it’s hard to look at a 9-7 record and mark that as a monumental accomplishment, but for us, it was exactly that.

The 2016 season was a roaring success, and despite narrowly missing playoffs, much of our fanbase is entering the offseason feeling better about this team than we have in close to a decade.

Under the first season of Head Coach Dirk Koetter and only two seasons removed from our dismal 2-14 2014 season that landed us the #1 overall pick, the Bucs have since begun a turnaround that includes a budding franchise QB in Jameis Winston, the ascendance of Mike Evans to a top tier offensive weapon, a young defense with a ton of potential, and a roster that took down competitive, playoff teams this year, including the Falcons (who gave up a 25-point lead in the Super Bowl), the Chiefs, and the Seahawks.

This season was about growth and growing pains, learning to work as a team in new schemes, and getting more and more experience for our young guys. The seeds have been planted, and I’m confident the darkest days are behind.


Statistics

As always, I look at the previous season as a baseline. A few noteworthy things to look at—our power run game diminished from the injuries/suspension of Doug Martin. Passing was mostly the same. Where things got a lot better, was in our first downs allowed, our turnover ratio, and our defensive DVOA ranking. Mike Smith was a huge upgrade over Leslie Frazier, and I’ll talk about him more in our “Season Highs” section. Our defense is beginning to “click.”

 

 

Category 2015 Buccaneers 2016 Buccaneers Δ
Offensive First Downs 336 340 +4
Defensive First Downs Allowed 351 326 -25
Total Offensive Yards 6,014 5,542 -472
Total Passing Yards 4,042 4,165 +123
Total Rushing Yards 2,162 1,616 -546
Total Touchdowns 37 41 +4
Sacks 38 38 0
Turnover Ratio -5 +2 +7
DVOA Defense Ranking 18 12 +6
DVOA Offense Ranking 18 18 0
Hargreaves had exactly the kind of rookie season I expected him too: an adequate one that showed flashes of brilliance while also getting torched on a play or five.

2016 Draft Picks: a Retrospective

I never like to be too hasty to judge rookies. Most NFL experts will say that it takes three years to truly understand if a player is a success or a bust, and even then, players can become late bloomers. The way I see it, is the first year is about learning, making mistakes, and assessing a rookie’s potential, progression throughout the season, and adjusting to the speed of the pro game. The second year, you have a much better understanding of what the player’s floor and ceiling are, and by year three, you usually know if that player is going to be an asset, a liability, or an adequate starter. The exception here is my rather harsh assessment of Roberto Aguayo—where the skillset is mostly similar to what’s required in college. There’s a mental component to that too, of course (more on that in a later section).

I’ve included my assessment of “how it’s looking so far,” and my comments I made about each player after the 2016 draft.

Player Round Pick How It’s Looking so Far What I Said Then
Vernon Hargreaves III (CB, Florida) 1 11 Hargreaves had exactly the kind of rookie season I expected him too: an adequate one that showed flashes of brilliance while also getting torched on a play or five. That’s going to happen with the caliber of QBs in the NFC South and the difficulty of our 2016 schedule. While complemented by the play of Grimes, unfortunately, Hargreaves got zero help from our abysmal safety play, often leaving him exposed to unfavorable matchups. What I liked about Hargreaves is that the ball skills and broken up passes that he mastered at UF seemed to show signs they could transfer to the NFL. It was an average rookie season, and you know what? Average is just fine for a rookie. I suspect he’ll be a stud in year 2. ”Hargreaves is going to have a trial by fire from day one. In a division in which he must cover against two of the best QBs in the NFL in Brees and Newton and match up against Julio Jones twice per year, it’s not going to be an easy job for VH3… I’m expecting growing pains as he adjusts to the NFL, but this will be a good pick in the long run.”
Noah Spence (DE, Eastern Kentucky) 2 39 Whatever character concerns I had about Spence didn’t come to fruition at all. He was quiet as a church mouse off the field, and by the end of the season, was as effective as a rabid Saint Bernard jacked up on amphetamines on the field. Though playing with a torn labrum for much of his rookie season, by the end of the year, Spence was looking like the best pickup of our rookie class. The 5.5 sacks aren’t indicative of his production. During our five game winning streak, Spence was ripping through OTs and getting into the backfield with ease. Between McCoy, Spence, Ayers, and Lavonte blitzing off the edge, it looks like the Bucs have finally planted the seeds for a functional, if not disruptive pass rush. ”Noah Spence’s talent is undeniable, and on tape, he’s got a complete repertoire of pass rush moves, an explosive first step, and the kind of guy who has the potential to wreck a gameplan… Though Spence sent a month’s worth of clean drug tests to all 32 teams, I remain suspicious of his ability to stay clean.”
Roberto Aguayo (K, FSU) 2 59 There’s no sugarcoating this one: Aguayo was garbage as a rookie, and had he not been a 2nd round pick, any other team would have cut him by now. Normally, a rookie is given the benefit of the doubt and allowed room for growing pains. Not so, for a Kicker selected with a premium draft pick. Aguayo finished his rookie season with a 71% Field Goal percentage. Jason Licht has already signaled his intent to bring in competition for training camp this year. In effect, Aguayo has 4 preseason games to prove he deserves a roster spot, or he’s gone. More on him below. ”What he does bring us though, is almost absolute reliability with extra points, short to medium range field goals... if Aguayo turns out to be Mike Nugent, it will be a disaster.”
Ryan Smith (CB/S, North Carolina Central) 4 108 Not a lot to report on here. Smith saw very limited action on Defense in 14 games, while working as a kick returner (10 returns, 169 yards for a long of 24). Too small a sample size right now to weigh in on his upside ” He’s a little bit undersized in both height and weight, but judging from combine and pro day numbers his athleticism is solid and he gives us an option as a potential return man as well.
Caleb Benenoch (OT/OG, UCLA) 5 148 Benenoch made one start this year, looking respectable in his limited time on the field. He finished his rookie season with just 134 snaps, so, again, hard to judge his potential, but it looks like we have a solid reservist, at the very worst. ”Benenoch has played every position on the offensive line and has a fair amount of starter experience. From what little I watched of him, he looks like he has potential to be a long-term developmental guy. Never hurts to add depth to OL.”
Devante Bond (OLB, Okalahoma) 6 183 Bond went to the IR with a hamstring injury. Not much to say other than that. ”Though he had limited experience in college, he looks like a thumper in the run game from what I saw. I’m indifferent about this one.”
Dan Vitale (FB, Northwestern) 6 197 For the second year in a row, we drafted a fullback, and I’m not really sure why. ”For the second year in a row, we drafted a fullback, and I’m not really sure why.”

First year head coach Dirk Koetter. Image courtesy of tbo.com

First year head coach Dirk Koetter. Image courtesy of tbo.com

Season High Points

Dirk Koetter Takes Over. Bucs Fans Like It.

 

For those who may not know, Dirk Koetter became the Head Coach this season after being promoted from OC following Lovie Smith’s firing. Lovie was perhaps “too nice,” and attempting to coach with methods that would have worked in 2005, not necessarily 2015. Flags were aplenty in our secondary, and the physical CB play that worked well in Chicago with the pre-2007 DPI rule changes made our team look like an undisciplined mess. At the time, the firing of Lovie Smith was a point of contention among our fanbase. There was a camp that said he was fired prematurely, another group that understood it was necessary to avoid letting Koetter walk for another head coaching vacancy, and a third camp that said it was the right move, regardless of the Koetter factor. After a successful first year, all three of those camps are all aboard the Koetter train. 

I think a lot of a fan’s experience and attachment to their teams is further enhanced by a likable and engaging Head Coach. Though the Raheem Morris years were not exactly bright spots in our franchise’s history, watching him interact with the press, his love of football, and history with the Bucs organization made the sub-par coaching and losing *a little bit* less bad. I’m feeling a lot of that with Koetter. The man is full of energy, funny zingers, and just the right amount of sass with the sports media that his press conferences have become a must-watch. He also looks like a Bizarro Rand Paul. Anyhow, a successful first year for him, a good replacement for Lovie, our first winning season since 2010, and all of a sudden, things are alright in Tampa. 

Our Five Game Win Streak and Our Winning Record

The last time the Buccaneers had a winning record was after Week 1 of our 2012 season, where we started 1-0. Between 2012 and 2015, the Buccaneers went 19-45, and poor play became almost expected. When the Buccaneers had a lead going into the 4th quarter, blowing it wasn’t a matter of “if,” it was a matter of “when.” This was a team that just couldn’t finish games, and seemed to descend to apathy when apathy was the last thing needed. Enter year one of Dirk Koetter, Mike Smith, and Todd Monken, and the cultural issues our team had since the end of the Gruden era have started to dissipate: winning feels within reach again. 

Beginning in Week 10, the Buccaneers took down the Bears, Chiefs (at Arrowhead, snapping a 10 game home winning streak for them), Seahawks, Chargers, and Saints before a narrow loss to the Cowboys ended a five game winning streak. The story ended with us missing playoffs, but to watch us win for more roughly one third of the season consecutively? [Channeling Gruden voice] *Man, it was special.* 

Mike Smith and the Return of a Defense

In the first three weeks alone, Tampa allowed a league-high 101 points and made Case Keenum look like the second coming of Kurt Warner. Between the Oakland loss I mentioned before and the loss to Atlanta in our second matchup alone, our defense allowed 1000+ yards and 9 TD’s in two weeks. Things were bad. Mike Smith approached the team and asked "What can we do better? What can I do better?" The team found a significant gap in verbal communication, and to provide more input into game planning and meetings.

Soon after the meeting, the Bucs only allowed 32 combined points in weeks 10-12, an increase in turnover margin, sacks, and a 26% increase in red zone defensive efficiency. I hate how much the term “swarming” is used to describe a defense, but by the end of the season, our defense had noticeably improved speed, penetration on the line, and improved coverage in the secondary—so much so that Mike Smith was sought after as a potential Head Coach. Luckily, Smith opted to stay in Tampa, signing an extension. Fans are hopeful the second half season performance will be replicated this season. We love Smitty, even if it looks like he’s always beet-red in the face like an alcoholic. 

“What can we do better? What can I do better?”
— Mike Smith

Jameis Becomes the First QB to Throw 4,000+ Yards in his First Two Seasons

Just before his 23rd birthday, Jameis made history by becoming the first QB in NFL history to hit the 4,000 yard mark in his first two NFL seasons. What’s more impressive about hitting that mark is that those 8,132 career yards were from passes to *21 different receivers* over the course of these last two years. Jameis has a long way to go, but what matters is he has the attitude and passion to get there. While his completion percentage, passing yards, and TD’s went up in year 2, so did his turnovers. In 2016, he had the 2nd highest number of interceptions among active QB’s, with 18 picks (and an additional 6 lost fumbles). Particularly against stalwart defenses like the Cardinals (51.9% passes completed, 243 yards, 1 TD, 4 INTs, 3 sacks) and the Broncos (48.6% passes completed, 179 yards, 0 TDs, 2 INTs, 5 sacks), Jameis showed he is still having sophomore growing pains. 

There were times when he made some absolutely boneheaded forced throws into double or triple coverage, but as he gets better protection (please protect this man. He is our future) and more continuity with the receivers he’s working with, Jameis has the potential to become one of the best QBs in the NFL. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have never had a QB make it to his second contract in franchise history. Since our Super Bowl win with Brad Johnson, we’ve had 11 different starting QBs and never found the franchise QB we desperately needed. It’s nice to know we finally found one. 

The Ascension of Mike Evans

In his rookie and sophomore seasons, Mike Evans was probably one of your favorite players on your fantasy teams. For us, despite his appearance on the stat sheet, Mike Evans was a very frustrating player to watch, but the potential was there. Drops were aplenty, but even worse, Evans would often be more focused on calling for pass interference or illegal contact calls instead of going for the ball itself—in fact, sometimes he would turn to the referee before the whistle blew, stop a route, and throw his hands up in anger, looking for the call. Perhaps the regime change helped foster a change in Evans’ mentality, or perhaps he just drank a good old fashioned maturity cocktail. Evans showed up to training camp 15 pounds lighter, more cut, and with a newfound attitude that focused on the ball rather than the call. 

A common knock on Evans in college as he entered the NFL was his lack of mastery of the so-called route tree. That was put to rest this season. Evans’ routes looked crisper, more fluid, and the cuts he made on his breaks were noticeably more explosive. The drops went down, the targets went up, and Evans finished with a career best 96 catches for 1,321 yards and 12 TD’s. With the regression of our run-first offense and the Dougernaut, Evans became the centerpiece of our offense, and carried the passing game on his own two shoulders—all the way to his first All-Pro selection. The best is yet to come for this whippersnapper.
 

The Punt Team

Anger finished with more than half of his 70 punts landing inside the 20-yard line, but his rapport with Russell Shepard and Josh Robinson pinned opponents close to the goal line on a large number of drives. For his efforts, what started as a one-year deal was extended an additional 4. He earned it. 

Anger finished with more than half of his 70 punts landing inside the 20-yard line, but his rapport with Russell Shepard and Josh Robinson pinned opponents close to the goal line on a large number of drives. For his efforts, what started as a one-year deal was extended an additional 4. He earned it. 


We may have seen the last of Doug Martin. Image courtesy of Wikimedia. 

We may have seen the last of Doug Martin. Image courtesy of Wikimedia. 

Season Low Points

The Final Fall of the Caged Muscular Rodent

Doug Martin has always been a hit or miss guy. There was his 2012 rookie campaign where he produced nearly 2,000 yards from scrimmage. In the two years thereafter, he was plagued with nagging injuries that prevented him from hitting 500 yards rushing from 2013-2014.  After finishing the 2015 season as a First-Team All-Pro, Doug Martin was set to become a free agent. Jason Licht managed to sign Martin to a deal that paid a reasonable $7.1M/yr, short of Peterson/McCoy/Marshawn Lynch figures, which dictated the highest echelons of the RB market at the time. This season, it was back to injured Doug again, dealing with a hamstring injury that kept him either sidelined or ineffective when on the field. And then it all came crashing down. 

In week 16, Martin was suspended four games for violating the NFL’s performance enhancing drug policy, testing positive for Adderall. Martin went into rehab soon after, voiding the guaranteed money in his contract. Within a year, he went from being a centerpiece of our offense to a potential cap casualty who we can now cut without facing the ramifications of dead cap space. While the team has signaled they haven’t given up on him yet, the team may cut him to create more room for a potential free agency binge. There’s plenty of Doug Martin’s tale left to be told. Whether or not the tale continues in Tampa or not remains to be seen. 

...the moment you miss that first kick or extra point, you’re no longer just a punchline, you’re Pagliacci the Clown.

The Lonesome Kicker

Adam Sandler’s song The Lonesome Kicker is a funny, but somewhat truthful look at the stress riding on a kicker. “Me, I’m the lonesome kicker,” Sandler sang. “Extra points, field goals at your service. One might think it comes with glory, you might think different after you listen to my story.” 

When the Falcons blew a 25 lead point in the Super Bowl, it was hilarious, but the blame got shared among coaches and players. When guys like Gary Anderson and Billy Cundiff missed their clutch kicks in the 1998 NFC Championship and the 2012 AFC Championship, it wasn’t the Vikings and the Ravens losing those games, it was Gary Anderson and Billy Cundiff losing them. There’s a reason that few GM’s are willing to use draft picks on kickers, let alone premium ones: for every once in a generation kicker like Adam Vinatieri, the dropoff in the kicker talent pool is steep enough that Kickers jump from team to team, or signed “off the streets” as a UDFA. Former Bucs HC John McKay once said: "Kickers are like horse manure. They're all over the place."

Once a kicker enters a mental funk, it can be difficult to get out of. Crippling self-doubt creeps in from a clutch field goal he may have missed a few games ago, and the letdown of a missed kick becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy every time he lines up for a field goal. Four placekickers have been inducted into the Hall of Fame (Anderson, Blanda, Groza, and Stenerud), and that’s because there are few kickers capable of handling the monumental pressure that comes with the territory needed to last an entire career. 

One of the most memorable and heartbreaking images from this year was watching the look of dejection come over Blair Walsh’s face as he cost the Vikings a game against the Lions via a missed FG and XP that could have won it. It was a face that acknowledged the shame of knowing he had let his teammates and fans down for the last time, with the writing on the wall in front of him that he would be released soon after.

One of the most memorable and heartbreaking images from this year was watching the look of dejection come over Blair Walsh’s face as he cost the Vikings a game against the Lions via a missed FG and XP that could have won it. It was a face that acknowledged the shame of knowing he had let his teammates and fans down for the last time, with the writing on the wall in front of him that he would be released soon after. This of course, was just eight games removed from the legendary playoff shanking against Seattle that cost the Vikings a chance to advance to the divisional. Walsh never recovered from it. It took just one playoff game and half a season to go from a Pro Bowl kicker to unemployed. When millions of eyes are on you with no blame to be diluted, it’s near impossible to keep your ego and self-esteem above water.  

Draft a kicker in the 2nd round, and the expectations mount ten-fold. You’re under the scrutiny of the sports media and collective fanbases of the NFL before you even set foot on the field. You’re already a punchline. And the moment you miss that first kick or extra point, you’re no longer just a punchline, you’re Pagliacci the Clown. Such is the early quandary of Roberto Aguayo. During his time at FSU, Aguayo never missed a FG under 40 yards, and never missed an XP. It took just two preseason games in the NFL to miss one of each. The jitters transferred to the regular season. Entering November, Aguayo had made just 58% of his field goals, while every other kicker in the league had made at least 70%. While Aguayo finally crept back to above 70% by season’s end, the inconsistency was enough for Licht and Koetter to bring in competition this year. “Our field goal percentage of this year is not good enough,” Koetter said at a season-end press conference. “…it has been proven that we have no problem moving on from a draft choice and playing somebody that wasn’t drafted. We did it this year and we did it a year ago.” Aguayo can still come back from this. Given what we invested, one can only hope he turns around. Even a struggling rookie Vinatieri was able to become the future HOFer he is today. “But that’s the life I live. The Lonesome Kicker.” 


Looking Ahead: Keys to a Successful 2017

This is the best I’ve felt about the team in a long time. Franchise QB and WR tandem? Check. Promising defensive corps led by McCoy, Lavonte David, Kwon Alexander, and Noah Spence? Check. Kicker? …….Anyhow, this offseason is going to be critical to push us to playoff team caliber.

Using Free Agency to fill our depth holes (and maybe sign one big ticket name), and continuing to secure our future via the draft, and this is a team that isn’t very far from returning to relevance. Our keys to 2017 success include:

  • Protecting Jameis

  • Jameis reducing his turnovers

  • Continued maturation and more experience on the field of our younger defenders, namely Kwon Alexander, Noah Spence, Vernon Hargreaves III

  • Adding more and more pass rush and depth on the defensive line, addressing our abysmal safety situation, and finding one more solid CB as succession planning for Brett Grimes

  • Either Aguayo starts playing like he did in college, or we replace Aguayo. Can’t wait for this one if it means costing us games.

  • Continue “getting in a rhythm” with our new coaching staff of Koetter/Smitty/Monken

Get on board our pirate ship. Or walk the plank. Big things ahead for us. FIRE THE CANNONS!

New Bucs WR Desean Jackson. Image courtesy of Wikimedia. 

New Bucs WR Desean Jackson. Image courtesy of Wikimedia. 

FIRE THE CANNONS!