Season grade: Below-average -- The 2018 season could not have been more of a roller-coaster ride in Tampa Bay: an electrifying 2-0 start under backup quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, the benching and re-insertion of starter Jameis Winston, the firing of defensive coordinator Mike Smith, a disgruntled DeSean Jackson requesting (and being denied) a trade and yet another kicking change. The result? Despite major upgrades on defense and more continuity on offense, the Bucs were no closer to becoming a winner than they were the previous season. In fact, Tampa Bay relieved coach Dirk Koetter of his duties as head coach following the Bucs' Week 17 loss.
Season in review: It wasn't the three-game suspension for Winston that marred the Buccaneers' 2018 season, as most expected -- they went 2-1 with Fitzpatrick during that span -- but the aftermath of the suspension. Winston and Fitzpatrick combined for a league-high 4.6 percent interception rate all while Koetter played quarterback roulette. The offensive line struggled to open holes in the running game -- Bucs running backs averaged 3.97 yards per attempt, 31st in the league. The defense had only one interception in 10 games. When Winston regained his job and cut down on the turnovers, the offense averaged 16.67 points in December against playoff teams. Smith's replacement, Mark Duffner, made improvements with the defense going from allowing 440 yards per game in Weeks 1-6 to 357 in Weeks 7-15. The Bucs' kicking game somewhat improved after moving on from Chandler Catanzaro to Cairo Santos. However, all the changes weren't enough to alter the Bucs' bottom line.
He said it: "We can't seem to get out of our own way almost. You can't really pinpoint one thing or one play, one player or anything like that. Until we find a way to either not make those critical errors or find a way to get over them, we're gonna continue to struggle to win games. ... Talent-wise, we know we're up there. Top to bottom, we have great players. But if your great players don't make plays every game, you're not gonna win." -- Buccaneers tight end Cameron Brate
What will the 2019 season hold? Will Jason Licht remain the general manager or is a full house-cleaning in order? The general feeling has been that Licht, who signed a contract extension last offseason through 2019, will stay with the franchise as the Bucs announced he will be assisting in the search for a new head coach. If there is a total regime change, what will that mean for any possible roster turnover? When Lovie Smith came in, there were 16 new starters. When Greg Schiano succeeded Raheem Morris, there were 11. And with Winston returning, does this automatically mean DeSean Jackson wants out? Sources indicated to ESPN's Josina Anderson that Jackson wanted a "fresh start" with a different team. Chris Godwin also showed he's capable of being the No. 2 receiver.
Now that Winston is returning, who's the best coach to guide him? The Bucs will be sticking with Winston in 2019, believing he still gives them the best chance to win despite his stumbles and off-the-field issues. "I've grown in a lot of ways as a football player and as a man since I've been here," Winston said. "I would never put a cap or ceiling on how much I can grow. I will continue to get better -- that's it." So, who is the best coach to take him to the next level and help guide him off the field? Bruce Arians? Mike McCarthy? Jim Harbaugh? Could the Bucs pull off a trade for John Harbaugh? Would a reunion with Jimbo Fisher, or perhaps elevating Todd Monken be the answer?
What's the fate of Donovan Smith and Kwon Alexander? Left tackle and middle linebacker are critical positions. Sources told ESPN that before Alexander's season-ending ACL injury, his agents were seeking $12 million annually -- in other words, Luke Kuechly money. Sources also told ESPN that the Bucs were not willing to go above $10 million. As far as Smith, a franchise tag might be the best route here, giving him one more year to develop, but the team has only used that designation three times in franchise history. "I think Donovan is a much better player than he's given credit for," Koetter said. "Can he have some plays at times that don't look great to the eye test? Yes, most players do. I just think that Donovan is a much more valuable piece than people think."