By GARY SHELTON
Special to woodypaige.com
Three men. Three perspectives. Three ways of making the Bucs better.
Think of them as the head, the heart, the soul. Think of them as men trying to perfect their crafts in the off-season. Think of them as players who can finally break through the glass ceiling that has haunted this team for years.
Think of them as hope, and as faith, and as promise. Think of them as a secret path to the post-season. Think of them as players trying to give their teams the final push.
It was Monday, the day the Bucs gathered to begin their off-season. Oh, there are dozens of different angles to this team. There is Doug Martin, the troubled running back who showed up. There was DeSean Jackson, the new acquisition. There is Mike Evans, who just had his contract extended. There was Noah Spence, who teammates expect to take the leap into being a real player this year.
But most of all there is Jason Licht, the architect.
There is Gerald McCoy, the experienced one.
And there is Jameis Winston, the future.
Together, they will try to lead this team to a better tomorrow.
* * *
Licht stands in front of the room, trying the best he can to answer questions without giving anything away.
He won’t say if the team has taken Joe Mixon off of its draft board, for instance. He won’t say if the Bucs have talked to Martin’s agent about a new deal. He won’t confirm that his team might be the choice for “Hard Knocks.” Pushed, he will admit that there is a draft, and that the Bucs are currently scheduled to pick 19th, and that whoever his team picks will wear a helmet. But that’s about it.
But this is Licht’s fourth draft, and yes, it’s getting about time his team plugged enough holes to reach the post-season. Nineteenth isn’t a prime draft position, but it should be as good as it gets for a while.
“You can get a good player at 50, you can get a player throughout the draft,” Licht said. “A lot of times when you’re picking high, if you go back and study it, there’s a lot of high-ceiling, but also low-floor players up there, a little boom or bust. That’s the case throughout the draft, but a lot of times when you’re picking later in the first round, you’re getting sometimes a safe player that may not have the flash, but ends up being a very solid player.
“It’s a little trickier picking at 19 with all the scenarios that happen in front of you. We can’t pinpoint who’s going to be there yet because crazy things happen, but we’re excited about where we’re picking. No matter where you’re picking, you wish you could figure out who’s going to be there and you wish that you were a little bit higher at that point. At the end of the season you don’t wish you were higher, but it’s just so you can minimize or predict a little bit more of who you’re picking from. Wherever we’re picking, we think we’re getting a solid player.”
One player the team has talked to has been Mixon, who was in for a visit. Licht declined to say if the team still had him on its draft board.
(Here is the video, from YouTube, that has caused Mixon so many problems. It is graphic, so be aware.)
“We had him in here,” Licht said. “We’ve spent more time with him than just the visit that he had here. I don’t typically like to say who we take off our board and who we leave on our board. We have a handful of players that we’ve already taken off our board and not all of it for criminal matters, but also just from a perspective of getting along with the team and being a worker and being a team-first guy. That’s the type of person we want here. So, I won’t say whether we took him off or not. I felt like the time spent with him was valuable.”
Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said he thinks of Mixon as the best overall back in the draft.With the uncertainty surrounding Martin – who will miss the first three games of the season – Mixon might be more tempting.
Even with the players here, the Bucs will be a trendy pick to make the playoffs this year. After all, the team finished 9-7 and barely missed a year ago.
“The way that we finished last year and the chemistry of this team and then our coaching staff that we have, I think we are a better team than we were last year. So, I think that we are closer,” Licht said.
* * *
Defensive tackle McCoy knows what fell short for the Bucs’ last year.
It was he.
At least, that’s the way that McCoy is treating it. While at the Pro Bowl a year ago, three different league sources talked to McCoy about what was missing. McCoy isn’t looking at anyone else.
“They all told me the exact same thing about myself,” McCoy said. “Not about the team. It wasn’t even about my play. It was just about me as a man, as a leader, and what I need to do moving forward.
“It hit home. To the point to where I reevaluated myself, my whole career up to this point. It wasn’t devastating, but it was a reality check. I wouldn’t have listened to them if they were not very credible sources and very successful in the things that they’ve done. I’m going to keep them nameless because it was a private conversation that happened between me and those individuals. The gist of what it is is that I haven’t done enough to lead this team. Simple as that. This team goes to the next level – as much as you need a franchise quarterback, those things are great, [but] this organization, this team winning Super Bowls is built on defense. That guy in the middle is what makes everything roll.
“Of course they brought up 99 [Warren Sapp] to me numerous times. Any dominant defense had a dominant guy in the middle. Basically, I just haven’t been enough for my team. They went into details, but I kind of take that personally. It’s something I need to address, moving forward. My approach to everything will be different. Media, my workouts, practice, meeting room, games, it’s just – something has to change. I was just always taught when more than one person is seeing the same thing, there’s got to be some truth to it. Especially if what they’re saying is very credible. I’ve been doing a lot of soul searching and self-evaluating – me, personally. Moving forward, something’s got to give. I don’t know what it’s going to be, how I’m going to do it, but if this team is going to go to the next level, I’ve got to fix a lot of things.”
Sure, McCoy might be a little hard on himself. For instance, he did make the Pro Bowl. But he says he has to be better in the final quarter of games.
“I’m one to, after they said to go look at all of my fourth quarters over the past two years – the great ones make the plays in the fourth quarter,” McCoy said. “The great ones make those big shots. The great ones make the plays when it’s necessary. If I want to be considered one of those guys when my career is over, that’s what has to be done.
“I haven’t been watching games or my film. I’ve been watching all of my fourth quarters. Where’s my energy level in the fourth quarter? Is my technique dropping in the fourth quarter? Am I making the plays that I need to make in the fourth quarter? Then I’ve been going to specific games to watch games that, if we win, if I make certain plays, we may be in the playoffs. You never know. I’ve never been one to shy away from carrying the load. I’ve been like this since I was a kid. It doesn’t phase me. This is what I’m here for. This is what I truly believe God has made me to be, is to carry the load. I just have to figure out how to do it. All of the great ones do. And if I want to be considered one of those guys when my career is over, I have to figure it out. My knees hurt. I’ve played a lot of snaps, taken a lot double teams. Time is ticking. I’ve got a lot of work to do in a short period of time.”
The point is this: McCoy recognizes that the Bucs need for him to be a great player, not just a very good one. They need him to be the reason that he makes his first post-season this year.
How else would you want a leader to act? Like it’s everyone else’s fault? Like it’s the coaches? McCoy is better than that. Perhaps saying it won’t make it so. But isn’t striving for excellence a good thing?
“(Derrick Brooks) would say ‘I knew in the first quarter and in the fourth quarter, it was Sapp time,’” McCoy said. “He knew that starting the game, it was time to go. He knew coming out in the second half, it always took him a second to get back going. But he always knew when he could take chances and when he couldn’t because he knew ‘All right, 99 is about to turn it on,’ because it was the fourth quarter. So, however he got to that point, he got there how he got there. Sapp always teaches me there’s only one way and it’s your way. Whatever it takes for you to be at your best. I don’t know what that is yet and how I can get to that point, but I have to. Will I get there? I plan to. I don’t plan to let anything get in my way. My purpose in Tampa is much bigger than football. In order for me to fulfill that purpose, I have to do everything that I can in my career to move forward and do what I’m really supposed to be in Tampa to do. I’ll figure it out.”
* * *
McCoy is introspective, like a man still trying to read his own DNA. Jameis Winston, on the other hand, is like a soda bottle that has been shaken up. He’s about to burst.
Winston keeps grinning, and he keeps waving his arms about. He loves his teammates, he loves his sport and he can’t wait for tomorrow.
“Every year, even in my rookie year, I felt like it was going to be a special year,” Winston said. “That’s just the passion that I have for this game. But yeah, I guess you can sense it, but you really can tell it in the fans. You can tell in the people that support us that they’re really looking forward to this being an amazing year and I believe it will.”
In two seasons, Winston has thrown for a combined 8,132 yards and 50 touchdowns. But he’s thrown 33 interceptions, too. There is improvement to make.
Winston on Mike Evans: Well as long as I’m around here, you know I want Mike Evans here. He’s a great asset to this team. He’s probably one of our most valuable players so I’m excited for him.”
Winston on DeSean Jackson: “Let me just talk about DeSean Jackson for one brief second. I had the opportunity in Houston – he came out there in Houston when I was out there working with him – and the guy’s like a Bentley with a Ferrari engine. You know what I’m saying? The guy can fly, but he’s a cruiser, man. He’s a cruiser so I can’t really explain how excited I am about him right now because I’ll probably go over my time but I am excited to have DeSean Jackson as a Buccaneer.”
Winston on Doug Martin: “I’m very certain of Doug Martin. He’s an amazing player. [He] battled some injuries last year but to this team, he means the world. We love Doug and seeing Doug be Doug – I just remember sending out a group text last year and Doug sent back a picture of a guy with the image of Doug just waving, like, ‘Doug.’ I was like, ‘This is Doug!’[laughing]. It was just good to see him out there, good to see his spirits up and I know he’s going to have a great year for us.”
Winston on wheter he’d like to play with Adrian Peterson: “Absolutely, I don’t know anyone that wouldn’t. But again, that’s out of my league. I can only talk about what I learned from him and how he helped me this offseason.”
Winston on his turnovers: “What struck me most was that they’ve got to stop, but that comes with improvement. So many [factors] create a turnover so you can’t really hit a specific thing because there are a lot of situations that we may encounter here and there. But the main thing is to limit them and stop hurting ourselves.”
sSo who helps the most?
The Bucs have a lot of holes for a team that thinks of itself as a playoff team. They need a running back they can count on. They need a safety. Maybe an offensive lineman. Maybe a tight end. That’s where Licht comes in. He needs a solid, safe draft.
McCoy? If he can find a way to be even better, especially with the game on the line, it will help. Offense is still ahead defense on this team, and unless the Bucs go with a safety, the No. 1 pick will probably be an offensive player. McCoy has to lead.
Winston? There have been too many times in his two years that the Bucs needed for Winston to be the best player on the field. If he had an average night, the Bucs’ chances of winning fell sharply. But with a better receiving corps, Tampa Bay has a chance. The schedule is tough, but the playoffs are possible.
So who’s the most important? The brain? The arm? The legs?
Why, all of them.
But especially Winston.
(Gary Shelton is one of America’s most-honored and distinguished sports journalists. Gary has spornamed the Associated Press Sports Editors’ No. 1 national sports columnist twice, has been a top five finisher five ot,her times and was chosen by sports editors in the top 10 columnists eight different years. He has been selected Florida’s Sportswriter of the Year six times. He was a columnist with the St. Peterburg/Tampa Bay Times for 25 years after joining the newspaper from The Miami Herald. Gary has covered 29 Super Bowls and 10 Winter and Summer Olympics, The Masters, the World Series, the Stanley Cup Finals and national championship in college football and basketball — all on multiple occasions over the past four decades. He currently has his own website — garysheltonsports.com — blanketing all sports in the Tampa Bay area. He is among the most creative and thoughtful and opinionated, and hard-headed, columnists you’ll ever read. And funny. And one of the good guys. Don’t ever miss his columns, interviews and stories on garysheltonsports.com. Gary has agreed to be an occasional contributor to woodypaige.com.)