By Nick Shook
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The sunny optimism of a Gulf Coast training camp didn’t last long for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Dirk Koetter’s second season fizzled with a 5-11 finish, bringing with it trash bags and vacation plans for his Buccaneers. A top-10 offense in yards gained per game (18th in points per game) couldn’t withstand the damage done by the league’s worst defense in yards allowed per game.
One of the members of that offense, free-agent signing DeSean Jackson, lamented the group’s underachievement in 2017 on Wednesday, starting with quarterback Jameis Winston.
“I think he needs to continue to be what he was that made him be Jameis Winston,” Jackson said during an appearance on ESPN’s First Take, per the Tampa Bay Times. “As far as coming from Florida State, winning the national championship. I actually talked to him at the end of the season. … I’ve seen him play. I’ve seen him on the practice field, he has the leadership. He has everything to be their guy. It’s just going back, have fun and not trying to impress the world. Just be yourself.”
The Buccaneers brought Jackson in with the idea of him being the final key piece to a receiving corps oozing with potential. Lined up opposite Mike Evans, Jackson was imagined as Tampa Bay’s much-needed deep threat that would help unlock the unit’s full potential.
He ended up catching 50 passes for 668 yards and three touchdowns, while Evans posted a 71-catch, 1,001-yard, five-touchdown season as Tampa Bay was forced to adjust during a three-game absence from Winston. The Buccaneers won two of those three contests, but then dropped four of their final five after Winston returned.
It wasn’t without effort. A scene from the preseason HBO documentary series showed Winston and Jackson discussing situations within plays and walking through such scenarios in their hotel room. But as the chemistry failed to coalesce — first, due in part to Jackson’s injury issues, and later, Winston’s — the losses piled up.
The result left Jackson feeling like he didn’t get the most out of 2017.
“I feel like anytime I’m on that field, I feel like I’m capable of doing some dangerous things,” Jackson said. “It’s just a lot of things that go into that throughout the week. Game plan. Injuries come up. As far as me, I feel like I’m a point in my career with 10 years in, I still feel like I have a lot of football left in me and I can still play at a high level. I just wasn’t able to get the opportunity.”
Should Jackson find better health — say, a full season played — in 2018, it’s reasonable to expect better things from him. That, of course, depends on Winston as well.
“We missed a couple times down the field,” Jackson said of he and Winston. “Like I said, injuries set in. But just the overall connection, I still think there’s a lot out there that I have to offer. I still want to show the league and the whole world what I’m able to do.
“Like I said, last year was tough on me. Very frustrating. But my take on it, I feel like I can go out there and continue to work and be a mentor and help. Just leadership as far as the success that I’ve had and what I’ve been through in my career. I’d say last year, obviously was tough. But we’re still building. We’re going to build our chemistry. We’re going to do everything we can … to get better.”
Statistically, Winston posted a better season in most categories. He improved on his completion percentage by three percentage points, upped his passing yards per game from 255.6 to 269.5 and posted a 92.2 passer rating, the best of his career. But the record (with plenty of blame also due for the defense) didn’t match, and neither did the amount of poor, pressure-driven decisions we’ve almost come to expect from Winston.
There’s always next year, though. A Buccaneers team that decided to retain its coach might be a few defensive changes away and a healthy campaign from a return to competition, which can quickly cleanse this franchise of the disappointment of 2017.