Tampa Bay has run off five straight wins to take control of their own destiny in the NFC wild-card race. They currently hold the No. 2 wild-card spot if the season ended today, and are also in a tie with the Atlanta Falcons for the NFC South lead. The Falcons currently own the division based on tiebreakers.
The Saints’ playoff chances are slim to none with slim basically having left town following Sunday’s loss in Tampa. Five teams currently sit ahead of the Saints in the race for the last wild-card spot, the only ticket to the postseason still available to them.
This has quietly been an excellent offseason for the Buccaneers’ defense. After retaining coordinator Mike Smith, who had head coaching looks, the team pivots toward a dominant presence against the run and pass. Baker has played in at least 14 games each year since the 2012 season.
Baker joins Gerald McCoy and key free agent acquisition Robert Ayers which, on paper, looks like one of the more formidable fronts in the division right now. Having just finished a three-year deal worth $9 million, Baker seems like he’s in line for a raise. It will be a worthwhile investment for Tampa Bay, a team that has already been shopping in Washington and plans to sign receiver DeSean Jackson at 4 p.m. ET today when free agent deals can become official.
Tampa Bay was undone by turnovers. The Cowboys converted two Jameis Winston giveaways in Buccaneers territory — one strip sack and one interception — into 10 points, which was more than the deciding deficit. When the Cowboys gave the Bucs life with a fumble of their own, Tampa Bay squandered the opportunity with a three-and-out. The mark of a young team is its inability to play smart football in big spots and take advantage of turnovers. On a night that was supposed to be Tampa’s coming-out party, Winston and the Bucs let themselves down.
When Winston wasn’t winging it and keeping plays alive with his unworldly pocket presence and footwork, he was facing a world of hurt at the hands of David Irving. With DeMarcus Lawrence sitting this one out, Irving, an undrafted second-year end, filled in more than admirably, deflecting one of Winston’s passes, sacking him twice and hitting him five times. Along with linebacker Justin Durant, who was Dallas’ standout pass rusher on the night, and the inimitable Sean Lee, Irving led a Dallas front seven that unnerved Winston at key points in the second half and kept him from leading a comeback.
The Buccaneers lost the first 26 games of their existence. TWENTY-SIX. When coach John McKay was asked about his team’s execution, he quipped that he was “in favor of it.” This was the most embarrassing stretch in team history — well, until the Bucs took a kicker in the second round of the 2016 NFL Draft. (A kicker who might not even make the roster in 2017.)
There is a lot of sad history for the Bucs. Four years in, they were really good, reaching the 1979 NFC Championship Game — and then they were really bad again for awhile. Tampa Bay hired Tony Dungy in 1996 and had this awesome defense, but couldn’t break through. Traded for Jon Gruden — yeah, that Jon Gruden — in 2002 and won a Super Bowl before becoming bad again. Now this team is absolutely loaded. Boom. You’re caught up.
I’ve documented every “Hard Knocks” season for NFL.com since 2012, when Joe Philbin was wowing America with charisma that would leave a young Elvis Presley green with envy. Barring a nuclear fallout scenario, I’ll be back at it again with episode recaps starting in August.
The Bucs are promising NFC upstarts with no shortage of intriguing personalities and storylines. One could even call them youngry … is that taken? Meanwhile, this feels like an important season for “Hard Knocks,” an all-time sports series that retreated into a formulaic cul-de-sac under the weight of the dreary Rams a year ago.
The Bucs were in need of a veteran behind starter Jameis Winston. They entered offseason workouts with Ryan Griffin, Sean Renfree and undrafted rookie Sefo Liufau as their backups. Griffin has never taken a regular-season snap, and Renfree threw a total of seven passes in two appearances with Atlanta in 2015.
Tampa couldn’t head into 2017 without replacing Mike Glennon with an insurance plan in case Winston suffers an injury. The Bucs are poised to battle for a playoff spot this season — and could be a trendy pick to swipe the NFC South. Adding Fitzpatrick at least provides an experienced signal-caller if something catastrophic happens to Winston.