It is often said an NFL player will make his biggest jump in his second pro season.
You know the deal. They are acclimated to the demands of the next level. They have caught up to the speed of the game. They had a full offseason to absorb the finer qualities of the playbook.
With all of that, here’s looking at you, Jameis Winston.
It’s Year 2, and the expectations to carry the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to relevance are much more pronounced than they were when Winston was drafted No. 1 overall.
Hey, Russell Wilson, Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger all won Super Bowls in their second seasons.
Sure, the circumstances are different. The Bucs — who brought up the rear in theNFC South last season by finishing 6-10 — would shock the NFL world by merely making the playoffs. But there’s no shame in thinking big.
“Well I hope this team goes from 6-10 to 16-0, myself,” Bucs coach Dirk Koetter told reporters last week.
Say what? That would be quite the stretch. The Bucs haven’t had a winning season since 2010, haven’t been in the playoffs since 2007, and have racked up five consecutive last-place finishes. But you can’t knock the spirit.
Besides, there are always surprise teams in the parity-encased NFL. Last season, Washington went from worst-to-first to claim the NFC East crown. Two seasons, ago, the Detroit Lions made the playoffs, which is nearly as stunning as it would be for theCleveland Browns to get in.
The pattern is well-established. Since the NFL expanded its playoff field to 12 teams in 1990, at least four teams each season have qualified for the playoffs after not making it the previous year.
This season, the Oakland Raiders, 7-9 in 2015, are a popular pick to finally end that franchise’s playoff drought dating to the 2002 season. For good reason. Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie has added building block players in the past few drafts, including linebacker Khalil Mack, quarterback Derek Carr and wideout Amari Cooper. And they followed that momentum with key free agent signing this offseason, including linebacker Bruce Irvin and safety Reggie Nelson.
So count the Raiders as a team that can add to the trend.
In the case of the Bucs — who were in the playoff mix at 6-6, before dropping their final four games — making such a leap would involve navigating one of the NFL’s toughest schedules. Both Super Bowl 50 participants, the Carolina Panthers andDenver Broncos, are on the docket. There are trips to Arizona and Kansas City. And the Seattle Seahawks and Raiders will visit Tampa.
Still, GM Jason Licht and Koetter – a first-time head coach promoted from offensive coordinator after Lovie Smith was surprisingly dumped after last season – had an aggressive offseason that bolstered the cast around the centerpiece quarterback.
Tampa Bay added at least a half-dozen new starters and overhauled the defense under new coordinator Mike Smith, formerly the Atlanta Falcons coach. (Interesting coincidence that can’t comfort Jeff Fisher and Doug Pederson: The Bucs andTennessee Titans drafted their franchise quarterbacks 1-2 last year, with Marcus Mariota claimed after Winston. Both teams fired their coaches).
Koetter had such good chemistry in helping develop Winston the Bucs were seemingly afraid to lose him as he drew interest for at least two head coaching jobs. That you never heard a peep publicly out of Winston questioning why Lovie Smith was dumped may have provided another clue about his approval with the move.
Regardless, the offseason buzz about Winston – who dropped the baby fat and remade his body – has been so bullish. After he arrived last season, Winston quickly gained a reputation for his dedicated, first-in, last-out work ethic. Apparently, he only added to his regimen in his first NFL offseason.
“Jameis being a young guy going into his second year, his confidence continues to grow and you can see it,” said Vincent Jackson, who teams with Mike Evans to provide Winston with a set of prolific, twin-tower receivers.
“He’s just getting a better feel not only for this offense, but with different players and building relationships there. It’s great, it’s fun to see a guy that’s hungry, who works hard. It’s fun to follow his lead.”
That’s a big reason why the Bucs are so intriguing.
“I think the most important thing in any team that has a turnaround one way or another is still injuries,” Koetter said. “When you’ve got 53 guys, every team is fighting health once Week 1 starts.”
Yet every team also starts Week 1 undefeated…and with plenty of hope.
As history shows, it can turn around quickly. Especially with a star quarterback in tow.