Every season, at least one NFL team coalesces at the right time, leaving its meager expectations in the rearview. (Hello Washington circa last year.) Even more often, a team with lofty expectations finds its motor a little lacking, leaving its rearview filled with naught but barren farmland.
Who will be the surprise teams of 2016, both good and bad? That’s the mission for today, and I choose to accept it.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
It’s been so long since the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have been competitive that it seems like the franchise owns a timeshare at the bottom of the NFC South. Five full seasons have passed since the Bucs were above .500 (10-6 in 2010) and, in that span, Tampa has managed to lose 57 games, going down in just about every way imaginable.
But the arrival of Jameis Winston last season has spawned some good feelings for a change around Raymond James Stadium. No one is talking Super Bowl quite yet, but obvious improvements, combined with the sudden success of division-rival Carolina last season, has Bucs fans thinking “Why not us?”
Winston proved the real deal, earning a Pro Bowl spot on the wings of 4,042 passing yards and 22 touchdowns. The rook actually had the Bucs at 6-6 and thinking playoffs in mid-December before a couple of tough losses burst the bubble and led to a 5th straight last-place finish in the the South.
Doug Martin re-emerged as a workhorse back in his fourth year, rushing for 1,402 yards on 288 carries (4.9 YPC), the most since his rookie season. Like Winston, the “Muscle Hamster” (which is either the best or worst nickname in the league) managed to stay healthy for all 16 games. Tampa’s suddenly viable run game kept pass-rushers honest and helped Winston stay on his feet.
With big-body receivers Vincent Jackson and Mike Evans out wide, the Bucs offense should continue to take steps forward.
One caveat: the early schedule is more than a little problematic. The Bucs open at Atlanta, then travel across the country to face the Cardinals. In Week 4, the defending champion Broncos come to town.
But, if Winston lives up to his potential, the best offensive player on the field will probably be in a Bucs uniform in all of those games, and it’s been awhile since Tampa Bay has had that advantage.
Did I say Tampa’s Week 4 tilt with the Broncos was problematic? Maybe I spoke too quickly.
Does anyone have an idea who will be under center this season? Paxton Lynch? Mark Sanchez? Player to be named later? I can’t see any of their current options calling signals in the Super Bowl next February.
Losing QBs Peyton Manning and Brock Osweiler will take its toll, but if that wasn’t enough to get you concerned, there is also repair work to do on the defensive side of the ball. (Remember the unit that actually won Super Bowl 50?) Up against the cap, Denver didn’t have enough cash to retain playmakers DT Malik Jackson and LB Danny Trevathan. They still have Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware ready to wreak havoc on opposing pivots and a strong secondary, but don’t expect quite the same dominance in 2016.
It all adds up to an uphill climb for the defending champs, who got a huge boost last season when the AFC West-rival Chiefs started slowly and the archrival Patriots played themselves out of home-field advantage. This time both the Chiefs and Raiders think they can win the division, and the Patriots added serious depth, especially at receiver.
Winning the Super Bowl two seasons in a row is a Herculean task that proves impossible for most teams. And this season, a Denver team minus much of 2015’s star power might have difficulty even getting back into the playoffs.