Jameis Winston and the Bucs welcome a fresh start under new head coach Bruce Arians
Bruce Arians first met Jameis Winston at Arians' son's football camp in Birmingham, Ala. "Jaboo' had been a legend since he was in ninth grade," Arians says of Winston, who was entering high school at the time. "Just a tremendous athlete. A very bright guy, but had a cannon for an arm."
Arians left an impression at that camp on Winston, too. He let the young quarterback wear the Super Bowl ring he had won with the Steelers. "That was one of those times when I was just like, 'Man, I want to get me one of those rings,'" Winston says.
Arians will get a chance to try to help Winston slip a Super Bowl ring on his finger once again. The 66-year-old came out of retirement to coach Winston and the Bucs, and he's re-hired most of his former assistant coaches thanks to his relationship with general manager Jason Licht. "The stars just kind of aligned," Arians says.
The biggest star is Winston, who is in the final year of a rookie contract that will pay him $20.9 million. Arians, the self-proclaimed quarterback whisperer who has worked with Ben Roethlisberger, Peyton Manning, Andrew Luck and Carson Palmer, has said one thing loudly since taking the job: "This is Jameis' team.''
Winston may have had his struggles — a three-game suspension and a three-game benching in 2018 — but the Bucs offense still was the strength of the team. Tampa Bay finished third overall in total offense (415.5 ypg) and had the league's most productive passing offense (320.3 ypg). With a surplus of targets, including receivers Mike Evans and Chris Godwin and tight ends Cameron Brate and O.J. Howard, Arians knew he didn't need an overhaul. "I've never walked into a situation with so many [talented] skill players on our roster," Arians says.
The Bucs did lose reliable slot receiver Adam Humphries to the Titans in free agency, and DeSean Jackson was traded to Philadelphia. But they added speed in Browns free agent Breshad Perriman and rookie Scotty Miller.
Arians points to two factors that could improve Winston's play: finding some balance with a running game and "not falling behind 20 points."
Arians is a bigger fan than most of running back Peyton Barber, who was 19th in the NFL in rushing with 871 yards and five touchdowns. "After watching him, we have a running back," Arians says. "And we have a big, strong, fast running back."
Aside from Barber, pickings are slim. Ronald Jones is coming off a horrific rookie year in which he only rushed 23 times for 44 yards. The Bucs need second-year running back Shaun Wilson to develop into a third-down back.
The offensive line has some holes, particularly on the right side. Tampa Bay moved right guard Caleb Benenoch to right tackle to back up Demar Dotson, who is entering his 11th season. It's an area they didn't address in the draft.
Arians has never had a tight end combination as productive as Howard and Brate, who combined for 11 touchdown receptions. Had Howard stayed healthy, he might have made the Pro Bowl.
Evans, who has produced five straight 1,000-yard receiving seasons, is getting better. Arians predicts that Godwin could play every snap this season at slot and outside receiver.
Arians has a penchant for getting five players eligible as receivers into the passing game. That means that Winston will have to get the football out of his hands quickly and hope tackle Donovan Smith, guard Ali Marpet and center Ryan Jensen can keep the pocket clean.
Arians is putting a lot of faith in 39-year-old coordinator Byron Leftwich, who will call plays this season. But who better to mentor Winston than a former NFL quarterback who has actually played in Arians' system?
Arians hired former Jets head coach Todd Bowles, who played for him at Temple, as defensive coordinator. In a move that may seem a tad sacrilegious, the Bucs are scrapping the Tampa 2. Bowles will deploy an attacking 3-4 defense in hopes of improving a unit that allowed 29 points per game last season.
The transition could take some time. Jason Pierre-Paul led the team with 12.5 sacks last season after his trade from the Giants, but nobody is sure how he will adapt to playing outside linebacker or being asked to drop into coverage. And JPP's health could be an issue after being injured in a car accident in early May.
The Bucs are hoping for big things from their biggest player — defensive tackle Vita Vea. The first-round pick from Washington missed all of training camp and the first three games of the season after a calf injury. But he finished strong with three sacks and four quarterback hits in his final seven games.
Tampa Bay cut ties with longtime defensive tackle Gerald McCoy in late May in what was viewed as a cost-cutting measure. The team signed free agent Ndamukong Suh to replace McCoy with the belief the 32-year-old still has enough left in the tank to have an impact up front.
The Bucs are hoping to get pressure off the edge from Carl Nassib, who had a breakout year with 6.5 sacks and 29 tackles after being claimed off waivers from the Browns. They also signed Broncos free agent Shaq Barrett and are hoping to resurrect the career of former second-round pick Noah Spence by moving him to outside linebacker.
The biggest addition is LSU linebacker Devin White, the No. 5 pick in the draft. The Bucs lost Kwon Alexander to the 49ers in free agency, and Bowles now has the quarterback of his defense for the next five years. There was hand-wringing in Tampa Bay when the Bucs went with White over Kentucky edge rusher Josh Allen. But as Arians has explained, Bowles utilizes a lot of blitzes to dial up pressure, especially from his linebackers.
Pressure will also be felt, and applied, by the Bucs defensive backs. Gone is the staid zone coverage. Bowles will play press man-to-man on outside receivers. The Bucs believe this will play into the strengths of cornerbacks Vernon Hargreaves and Carlton Davis. The team picked up the fifth-year club option of $9 million for Hargreaves, who has played in only 10 games in the last two years due to injuries. For the second straight season, the Bucs invested three draft picks in fortifying the secondary. Central Michigan cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting and Kentucky safety Mike Edwards will battle for starting spots.
One of the few free agent signings for the Bucs is 49ers punter Bradley Pinion, who owns a 43.7-yard career average and is one of the few punters who also excels at kicking off. This move was expected to help placekicker Cairo Santos, who went 9-of-12 in field goal tries in the final seven games with the Bucs. But that was before Licht did the unthinkable again and drafted another placekicker. Summoning memories of Roberto Aguayo, the Bucs' second-round pick in 2016 who flamed out after only one season, the team selected Utah's Matt Gay in the fifth round. Licht makes no apologies, calling it an important position. The return game took a hit with the departure of Humphries.
Even though the Bucs haven't made the playoffs since 2007, Arians says this is a reload rather than a rebuild. Certainly, his track record of quick turnarounds is pretty remarkable. He won NFL Coach of the Year in 2012 after leading the Colts to a 9–3 record when he stepped in for head coach Chuck Pagano. At Arizona, Arians went from 10–6 to 11–5 to 13–3 and an NFC Championship Game appearance.
The schedule-makers didn't do the Bucs any favors. They go from Sept. 22 to Nov. 10 without a game at Raymond James Stadium and will fly more than 25,000 miles during a six-game stretch that includes games in London against the Panthers and at Seattle and the Los Angeles Rams. "Am I happy about it? Hell, no. I think it's ridiculous," Arians says.
A winning season for Arians would be a huge accomplishment. Maybe then he and Winston can focus on earning a Super Bowl ring.