The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have been dubbed a sleeper team by many, but the team’s young roster has some developing to do. As the team fights its way back into relevancy, it can look within the NFC South at the Carolina Panthers as a measuring stick.
After years of struggles and sub-.500 play, the Buccaneers are looking to put themselves back in the mix of the NFC South race. With a young and talented roster, Tampa Bay finds itself on the right track back to relevancy, but the team isn’t there yet. The winning culture that the franchise had under Tony Dungy and Jon Gruden needs to be re-established by Dirk Koetter, his staff and, obviously, the team’s leaders. Jameis Winston, Vincent Jackson, Gerald McCoy and Lavonte David definitely need to play a big part in the team’s turnaround. But, in that turnaround, the Bucs need to look at one of their division rivals, the Carolina Panthers, as a team to model themselves after.
The Panthers have won three straight NFC South titles and won at least one playoff game in each of the last two years. A year ago, they won the NFC Championship Game before falling to the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl. Even though Carolina was unable to capture the league’s top prize last season, Tampa Bay should still look at the Panthers as a measuring stick as it looks for sustained success. Of course, as division rivals, the two teams will meet twice this season.
The Bucs need to be competitive with the Panthers to prove that they’re serious about a new winning culture in the locker room. Not only should Tampa Bay measure itself up against Carolina when the teams meet head-to-head, but also look at how the Panthers go about their business and win games. Carolina has a strong defense and a dynamic offense. With Ron Rivera‘s team, it’s not one or the other. The Bucs could learn a lot from that.
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In the last three years, the Carolina defense has finished in the top half of the NFL in points allowed per game, giving up 15.1 in 2013 (2nd), 23.4 in 2014 (12th) and 19.2 in 2015 (6th). Tampa Bay needs that kind of consistency on defense now that Lovie Smith’s scheme is out and Mike Smith‘s is in. The team certainly has the talent to succeed, but it’s a matter of it all coming together.
The Panthers and Bucs have high-quality players at similar positions, which could make Tampa Bay poised for a defensive breakout. Where Carolina has Kawann Short and Charles Johnson, the Bucs have Gerald McCoy and two newcomers in Robert Ayers and Noah Spence. The Panthers have Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis leading their linebacker corps while Tampa Bay fields its own strong duo of Lavonte David and Kwon Alexander.
In 2015, Carolina had Josh Norman and Charles Tillman at the corner positions, and Tre Boston and Roman Harper at safety. Boston is the only one of the four still with the Panthers, who will be going through a rebuild in the secondary. While the Bucs aren’t wholly rebuilding their secondary, there is a parallel in that it is a big question mark for the team. Johnthan Banks and Alterraun Verner need to rebound while Vernon Hargreaves and Bradley McDougald have much to prove.
The Panthers’ offense was one of the best in the league a year ago. The Bucs have the same kind of potential, and they can look at the Carolina offense and see that the track they’re on right now can, and will, pay off. Comparisons have been drawn between Carolina’s Cam Newton and Tampa Bay’s Jameis Winston, and rightfully so. Newton and Winston are similar in physique and playing style. Newton is a proven big-time quarterback in the league and “Famous Jameis” has all the potential to be one of the NFL’s best.
But, Newton isn’t the only thing going for the Carolina offense. The Panthers’ run/pass split was about 50-50 in 2015 and, in the last three years, about 49 percent of their plays were pass plays.
With a budding superstar in Winston under center and Mike Evans at receiver, Tampa Bay’s future in the passing game looks bright. But, with the re-signing of Doug Martin and the presence of Charles Sims, the team’s ground game is solid as well. So, the Bucs would be wise to follow close to a 50-50 run/pass split like Carolina does.
Over the last three years, Tampa Bay has thrown the ball on nearly 64 percent of its plays, but last year moved closer to a 50/50 split, throwing the ball about 55 percent of the time.
Another thing Tampa Bay could take from Carolina is its ability to win at home. As discussed here, the Bucs will have to win at home if they want to return to relevancy. They need to make Raymond James Stadium a venue that opposing teams don’t want to visit. In the last three years, each of which were years that the Panthers won the NFC South, they went 19-5 at Bank of America Stadium. That kind of success is needed if the Bucs want to contend year in and year out.
2016 may not be the year that the Bucs unseat the Panthers at the top of the NFC South, but on the road to doing so, it would be wise of Tampa Bay to measure itself against the team it is chasing.