TAMPA – It is the season within this season.
And the Bucs are already breathing down the Browns’ necks.
They’re waiting to replace Cleveland as the team with the longest playoff drought. The Bucs are at 11 seasons. The Browns are up ahead, at 16, not a sniff of playoffs since 2002.
But the Bucs show real promise, even with Bruce Arians in charge, at least they did as the teams met Friday night at Raymond James Stadium in the all-important third meaningless preseason game.
We got our longest look at Jameis Winston and the first-team offense. And we wish we hadn’t.
Winston can look good, not good. What else is new? He is already the franchise’s all-time touchdown thrower and will become the Bucs’ all-time leader in passing yards early this season barring injury, which we were reminded about when he was sacked on consecutive plays in the Bucs’ first possession and five times inside of 30 minutes.
And Arians is going to attack and send everybody out?
Bring your dental record to every game, Jameis.
The right side of the line, with Demar Dotson and Alex Cappa, is going to be a problem. Center and the left side might be trouble too. This whole season could cave.
Bottom line: Seven first-half Bucs possessions, no points, no nothing, Winston 9 for 19 for 88 yards, all over the place. Throw in a missed field goal from rookie Matt Gay. Welcome to the long very gray line, kid.
Back to Winston. Arians has been happy with his work ethic. But Friday reminded us that for all the Bucs moved the ball in the air last season, they didn’t score as much as they should have, a slight problem when combined with a defense that surrendered 29 points per game.
Winston surely contributed his share to the problems, with 19 touchdowns and 14 interceptions, but he also had no running game and bad pass blocking. And we still don’t know if that is going to even come close to changing under Arians and offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich, who will call plays instead of Arians. Can’t wait to see if that lasts if the Bucs begin piling up losses.
I don’t put much into the look of any preseason, good or bad, but I bet Arians began to see reality on Friday.
But what is interesting is the perceived optics of the teams that met Friday. The Browns have been awful for so long, but the Bucs are catching up. The Browns have been ridiculously bad during their playoff drought, bottoming out at 0-16 in 2017 and going a phenomenally putrid 4-44 in one three-year stretch. But give the Bucs time.
All you need to know is that the Bucs worst defeat last season was a win, a 29-26 comeback overtime win over the Browns, one that made the Bucs 3-3, and put enough bubbles in former head coach Dirk Koetter and eternal Bucs GM Jason Licht to actually think the Bucs had a chance to make the postseason.
They did not, but the Browns win made them hoard players instead of trading them, a mistake.
Look at that offensive line. The Bucs are spending $30 million combined this season on Donovan Smith, Ali Marpet and Ryan Jensen this season, and we’re about to find out if Licht throwing money at pretty much the same line that couldn’t block last season means the problem will go away.
The Browns are gaining on respectability. The Bucs are going in reverse. They might be all alone, worst playoff drought going, after this season. They might not be able to stop it, especially if it requires blocking.
Contact Martin Fennelly at email@example.com or (813) 731-8029. Follow @mjfennelly