Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Could Bucs follow Jaguars’ path? ‘Same thing could happen here’

If there is hope for the 2018 Bucs, for how big a single season's turnaround can be in bringing a losing team back to the postseason, it is 200 miles to the northeast, in Jacksonville.

The Jaguars will host a playoff game on Sunday against Buffalo — it will be Jacksonville's first playoff appearance since 2007, when Dirk Koetter was in his first year as an NFL assistant, on a staff with current Bucs defensive coordinator Mike Smith, offensive coordinator Todd Monken and linebackers coach Mark Duffner.

Buffalo has been out of the playoffs even longer, going back to 1999 — and 2017 was very much a year to end long playoff droughts. Of the six longest entering the season, four ended in 2017 — the Bills (1999), the Rams (2004), the Jaguars (2007) and the Titans (2008).

That leaves the only team going longer without a postseason berth than the Bucs — last in 2007 — are the 0-16 Cleveland Browns, whose last playoff appearance was in 2002, the same year as the Bucs' last playoff win.

Can you go from 5-11 to the playoffs? The Jaguars had been 5-11 or worse for six straight seasons before this year's 10-6 mark, including a 3-13 record last year. That's also six straight years picking in the top five of the draft, accumulating top-tier talent.

The Jaguars have drafted well, but their success followed three major high-dollar wins in free agency, signing DE Calais Campbell (14.5 sacks), CB A.J. Bouye (six INTs) and S Barry Church (four INTs, 76 tackles). Add in DT Marcell Dareus, whose massive $96-million contract was acquired from the Bills for a sixth-round pick, and those four are the highest-paid Jaguars, their contracts worth a combined $309-million, or $58-million per year.

So while the Jaguars have seven players making at least $10-million a year, the Bucs have just three, though that number could easily double or more in the next 15 months.

Cornerback Jude Adjei-Barimah is a nearly forgotten player for the Bucs — he missed the entire 2017 season with a knee injury. He's a restricted free agent, and whether the Bucs give him the minimum one-year, $1.9-million tender or try to re-sign him for less, Adjei-Barimah said he wants to be back, and the Jaguars are his reminder why.

"I want to redeem myself," said Adjei-Barimah, who had 63 tackles in his first two seasons with the Bucs. "I know what's being built here. I don't want to look back like those guys who left Jacksonville two years ago. A lot of those guys are looking back, like 'Damn.' The vision they were sold is there now. The same thing could happen here, and that's why I want to be able to stick around and see it happen."

One similarity between the 2016 Jaguars and 2017 Bucs: close losses. Jacksonville went 2-8 in games decided by seven points or less in 2016; this year, they had six wins by 20 points or more, including one by 37 and another by 38. The Bucs were 3-7 this year in games decided by seven or less.

On scoring differential, the Bucs finished at minus-47, which is actually the 18th-best total out of 32 NFL teams. That's better than those playoff-bound Bills (9-7, -57), better than the Cardinals (8-8, -66), Packers (7-9, -64) and Bengals (7-9, -59) and within a point of the Redskins (7-9, -46). By that, the Bucs to some extent were better than their record would suggest.

For the Bucs to replicate the Jaguars' success on the scoreboard, they'd have to be just as near-perfect in their biggest offseason investments, equally aggressive and correct in their free-agent spending. It's no easy task, but the Jaguars have shown how to return to the playoffs after a decade away.