The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are one of the most disappointing teams in the NFL this season. A team that was the darling of the summer, thanks to their appearance on HBO's Hard Knocks and a bevy of young talent, fell to 4-10 after losing 24-21 to the division-rival Atlanta Falcons on Monday night. As the Falcons head toward a potential playoff berth, the Buccaneers gaze into the mirror with introspection, waiting for the merciful conclusion of a letdown season.
Chief among the culprits behind this unfulfilling campaign is an offense full of unrealized potential. Their star No. 1 receiver hasn't crossed 100 yards in a game all season. What should have been a redemption tour for Doug Martin never got off the map, and he looks headed for a divorce from the team after a Week 15 suspension. Most of all, their franchise quarterback hasn't taken a step forward in 2017.
Jameis Winston hasn't elevated a broken team and has committed his share of costly mistakes to sink the Buccaneers' season. In a year when he was initially pegged to be among the more popular candidates for a breakout season, Winston didn't show much progress heading into Week 15. However, against the Falcons on Monday Night Football, the former No. 1 overall pick showed signs of why the Tampa Bay franchise, and the football world at large, so strongly believed in him as a linchpin type of quarterback.
One of the most aggressive quarterbacks in the NFL, we should always expect Winston to operate as a gunslinger. He has been exactly that this season, throwing 19.8 percent of his 2017 passes into tight windows (less than 1 yard of separation), the eighth-most among qualifying quarterbacks. Those plays haven't bore good results. In Weeks 1 to 14, Winston maintained a 37.6 passer rating on tight-window throws, falling well below the NFL average thanks to five interceptions on 64 attempts.
Winston was noticeably better on this brand of throws in Week 15, looking much like the gifted quarterback we expected to see this year. He posted a sterling 144.3 passer rating on his tight-window passes against the Falcons, consistently drilling the ball into confined quarters. Winston also posted the type of highlight-reel plays one wants to see from a developing quarterback, especially one surrounded by a stable of talented players. Most notably, his deep touchdown toss to Mike Evans traveled 50.9 yards of distance in the air, the third-longest completion of the week.
Winston's connection, or lack thereof, with Evans has been one of the detriments to his 2017 progress. The duo has often looked just a tick off the same page. That was far from the case against Atlanta on Monday night.
Evans owned a whopping 44.3 percent share of his quarterback's intended air yards, the seventh-highest figure for any pass-catcher this week. Cameron Brate was second on the team and well behind Evans with 19 percent. Winston made beautiful music with his 6-foot-5 wideout, posting a 134.9 passer rating on throws to Evans against Atlanta. The results could have been even better for the young quarterback if not for multiple offensive pass interference flags called on Evans amid a handful of deep shots.
In the end, meaningless was once again the theme for Tampa Bay in Week 15, as none of these sterling data points amounted to a win for the struggling team. However, these are the sort of signals the franchise must look for in its final games of the season.
Hope is long since lost for a Buccaneers team destined to undergo more transition as soon as the calendar flips to the new year. Yet, the degree of optimism with which they turn the page will be entirely dependent on how their core players finish this season. Even two more performances like the stellar effort offered up by Winston in this Week 15 loss would go a long way to reinforcing the idea that brighter days are ahead for the lost at sea Buccaneers.