Newspaper article Sarasota Herald Tribune

Bucs Need to Add Pieces to Puzzle | Team Has Similarities to Panthers' Rise

Newspaper article Sarasota Herald Tribune

Bucs Need to Add Pieces to Puzzle | Team Has Similarities to Panthers' Rise

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Lovie Smith stopped a few yards short Monday of pulling a Joe Namath. In his wrap-up press conference to the 2015 season, the Bucs head coach said his team should make the playoffs next season.

Not a "will'' or "no doubt about it'' anywhere within earshot. Guarantees are given by car dealerships and brash quarterbacks before Super Bowls. Smith is neither.

"I'm saying it should," he said. "Can it? Yeah. We should."

Smith's second season in Tampa Bay was three-fourths "hey, this is going pretty well" and one-fourth "what the heck just happened?'' Seemingly overnight, 6-6 became 6-10. With something to play for, the Bucs stopped playing.

It was their fifth-straight last-place finish. On at least one occasion this season, Smith referenced the Carolina Panthers as a turn-around model for his team. To be truthful, there are similarities.

In 2010, the year before the Panthers drafted quarterback Cam Newton, Carolina finished 2-14, as did the Bucs last season. In Newton's rookie season, the Panthers improved to, you guessed it, 6- 10.

In 2012, Carolina went 7-9 before starting in 2013 a three-year playoff run. Now in his fifth year, following a regular season of 35 touchdowns and 10 interceptions, Newton is regarded as one of the league's most dynamic players.

It's a career trajectory the Bucs hope Jameis Winston's follows. He's off to a pretty representative start. Only three quarterbacks in league history passed for more than 4,000 yards as rookies. Newton is one. Andrew Luck is one. Winston is the third.

But if the Bucs are to take that next step, i.e., playoffs, Smith believes should happen, they won't without another offseason of talent upgrades, on both sides of the football.

Offensively, the team faces a major decision with running back Doug Martin, who ran this season with a purpose -- money. With 1,402 yards, second only to Adrian Peterson, the free-agent-to-be rushed himself into a hefty contract. …

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