Bucs open the season amid high expectations

by Gary Shelton on September 13, 2020

in general

Brady is in a race against the calendar./TIM WIRT

Sunday, 4 a.m.

An expectation is a dangerous thing.

You love your team. You think about your team. You find yourself writing down depth charts instead of doodling while on the phone.

You predict win totals -- and you can't believe anyone who has less. You spend money -- on jerseys and caps and bumper stickers. You read the predictions of guys you've never heard of. You anticipate.

And you set yourself up for the fall.

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This is how Spain felt about the Armada. This is how the French felt going into Waterloo. Expectations. And devastation.

It isn't your fault. Everyone expects your team to be better. Heck, it won the off-season, didn't it? It replaced its most obvious shortcomings. It spent money.

Yet, it can fail.

And so it is that we look upon the Tampa Bay Bucs with new hope. They have replaced an interception machine in Jameis Winston with Tom Brady, arguably the best quarterback of all time. They brought in Rob Gronkowski, possibly the best tight end ever to play the position. They brought in Tristan Wirfs, an athletic offensive tackle. They signed Leonard Fournette, who had more than 1,000-yards rushing last year. They re-signed Shaq Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul. They even signed a kicker, Ryan Succup, who is supposed to take the "suck" out of the position.

At this point, you ask yourself, what could go wrong?

Well, the Bucs could go wrong, obviously. They've eaten careers before. After all, they haven't won a playoff game since before the 2003 season, and they're in a quarterback-rich division, and no one knows how the Covid-19 virus will affect anything. The offensive line isn't convincing, and the safety play needs improvement. No one should engrave any trophies yet.

Oh, I think the Bucs will be better, too. But I don't think they'll intimidate other teams, either. You and I have both faced disappointments before.

Remember the 2003 season? None of us saw any way the Bucs could fail then, either.

They had a coach, Jon Gruden, in his second year. All he had done in his first season was provide the spark to win a Super Bowl. The team had a Hall of Fame defense that was in its prime with Derrick Brooks and Warren Sapp and John Lynch and Ronde Barber. Those receivers were good, too, with Joe Jurevicius, Keyshawn Johnson and Keenan McCardell.

But as the season went on, those Bucs unraveled. They missed an extra point against the Panthers and lost their home opener in overtime. They blew a 35-14 lead and lost to the Colts. They lost three games in a row in mid-season. They lost their final two games. And they finished 7-9.

So much for a repeat.

Remember the 2005 NHL season? No, you don't. It didn't exist. The Lightning had won their Stanley Cup in 2004, and they seemed to have a lot of players entering the highlight of their careers -- Martin St. Louis, Vinny LeCavalier, Brad Richards. Dave Andreychuck was nearing the end, but even then, he was a year younger than Brady.

So what happened. After a strike cost the team a year, the league decided that year would count toward players' contracts. Suddenly, Nikolai Khabibulin was up, and the team didn't re-sign him. And it left a hole in the franchise.

Then there were the 2009 Tampa Bay Rays. The previous season, the Rays had amazed everyone by winning 97 games and reaching the World Series. Everyone knew that Evan Longoria and David Price were going to be special, and the team still had James Shields and Carl Crawford and Carlos Pena and Ben Zobrist.

Yet, it won just 84 games and finished third in its division.

Yeah, we know about expecting success, don't we?

Hey, I imagine the first-ever seasons were filled with hope for each team, but you can't really have a lot of expectations about new franchises. There really weren't a lot of expectations when Tony Dungy took over ... although the expectations that his era created doomed him.

But this Bucs' team feels different. We have seen the team invest heavily in the off-season before, and we have seen it blow up, but this seems to be a higher-quality return than in most years. Anything less than 10 victories doesn't compute, does it?

What does Brady have left at 43? Heck, he's seven years older than Peyton Manning was when Manning went to Denver. Could Bill Belichick finally be wrong? We'll see.

"One thing that strikes me is that he doesn’t look like he’s any older," general manger Jason Licht was saying the other day. "Actually, his arm looks stronger than what we saw last year on tape. His work ethic is just unbelievable and we keep saying this word, but he sets such a high standard that you find out if guys can keep up with it or if they’re not quite ready. I think everybody on this team wants to reach that standard. You’ve got some young guys that are learning on the fly here. But, it’s something – I think we said this when we signed him – that whenever he’s done, let’s say five years from now, that standard will remain with this team.”

How will the running game sort itself out. Can Ronald Jones II and Fournette be a satisfying duo? Does LeSean McCoy have anything left.

“I’m very excited about that group," Licht said. "I think Shady (LeSean McCoy) has been such a good bell cow there in that room and [a] leader [who] has embraced that role. Ke’Shawn [Vaughn] really came on at the end of camp. Really, in a normal year, with the amount of reps that he’s gotten he would just be getting done with OTAs at this point. Then he missed a little bit of time at training camp at the beginning, too. He’s really coming into his own. Since we signed Leonard [Fournette] – who we’re very excited about – RoJo (Ronald Jones II) has taken another step forward. He’s welcomed the fact that we signed Leonard, who is an extremely talented guy. It’ll be fun to see how all this shakes out, but I’m very excited about that group.”

Will the receivers be as good as ever, especially with Gronkowski in the mix?

And can the secondary hold up?

And can the Bucs finally find a kicker?

“It came down to consistency," Licht said. "We want a consistent kicker. Ryan, last year, battled through an injury that he ended up having surgery on. But, before that, he was very consistent inside of 50 [yards]. I think he has the NFL record for most [consecutive] kicks inside of 50 [yards]. We worked him out here and [he] showed exactly what we thought he was on tape. He’s a great guy in terms of it seems like he has a great head on his shoulders and he can take the weight of the world on his shoulders at that position, which is very important. We’ll see how it goes. [I] don’t have a crystal ball – I wish I would, otherwise we wouldn’t have had a kicking problem here.”

It all starts today. Again, it might take a month before this team is fully in synch. But eventually, it's going to be worth watching.

Either that, or it may rank with the most disappointing seasons that Tampa Bay fans have seen.

Today's prediction: New Orleans 28, Tampa Bay 24.

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