Despite 2-14 finish, Buccaneers believe they're headed in right direction



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TAMPA, Florida — Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy stood near an entrance to Tampa Bay's locker room talking about the end to another disappointing season.

But instead of venting frustration, the NFL's highest-paid player at his position spoke about what he's convinced will be much better days ahead for the Buccaneers.

"I know how to handle losing. ... I don't want to handle losing anymore," the fifth-year pro said. "It's time to start handling winning."

The Bucs (2-14) missed the playoffs for the seventh straight season, finishing with their worst record in 28 years. Barring a trade, they'll have the first overall pick in the draft for the first time since 1987, when Vinny Testaverde was the selection.

An opportunity to maybe bring in another Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback — namely Oregon's Marcus Mariota or Florida State's Jameis Winston — to help rejuvenate the franchise on and off the field isn't the only reason McCoy believes the future is bright.

He likes the foundation coach Lovie Smith and general manager Jason Licht laid for the team this season, including giving McCoy a seven-year contract extension worth up to $98 million. The third overall pick in the 2010 draft had 8 1-2 sacks before spending the final two weeks on injured reserve with a knee sprain.

"One of my closest friends is Michael Bennett. He's on a team that once again is at the top of the NFL," McCoy said of his former Bucs teammate, currently with the Seattle Seahawks.

"I think it's great to get advice from people who have been around the winning culture and what it takes," the team captain said. "I ask him from a player's standpoint. If I want to hear it from the coaches; I've got plenty of coaches who have won (championships) on our staff."

That begins with Smith, who led Chicago to three division titles, two NFC championship games and one Super Bowl appearance in nine seasons as coach of the Bears.

Despite finishing with his worst record as a head coach, Smith feels he has Tampa Bay headed in the right direction. He bases that on being relatively competitive in all but three games — blowout losses to Atlanta, Baltimore and Detroit, who outscored the Bucs 138-48.

Tampa Bay lost eight games by six or fewer points.

"I think we are close. ... We will handle some situations a lot better this coming season, 2015," Smith said. "I know where we're drafting and that's what you are, what your record says you are, but I just feel like we can move up the ladder fairly quick."

The first order of business will be hiring an offensive coordinator to replace Jeff Tedford, who underwent a heart procedure in August and did not coach a regular-season game.

Even though the offense featured a pair of 1,000-yard receivers in Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson, Josh McCown wound up with the second-lowest passer rating in the league.

"I want to talk to as many people as I possibly can to get the right fit for us," Smith said, declining to say if he will seek a candidate with NFL play-calling experience or a replacement with a college background, something Tedford brought to the job. "I would like to get the best offensive coordinator. I just don't think you put yourself in a box. You look and you talk to as many people as possible. Every guy in the NFL was once in college, so I don't think you can close the door on that."

Reasons the Bucs went 2-14, and others supporting Smith's belief that the future is positive:

QB WOES: McCown was a disappointment after signing a two-year, $10 million deal in free agency. But having the No. 1 pick in the draft gives Smith a chance to add a potential franchise passer, even though there are glaring needs in other spots, including offensive line. If Mariota and/or Winston declare for the draft, fans will scoff if the team does anything other than take a quarterback.

SHODDY PROTECTION: Smith and Licht rebuilt the offensive line, primarily through free agency, and it didn't work. Besides having one of the worst running games in the league, the Bucs allowed 52 sacks, their most since giving up 56 in 1995.

THROW IT, WE'LL CATCH IT: Evans, the seventh overall pick in the 2014 draft, and Jackson are the first Tampa Bay tandem to have 1,000 yards receiving in the same season. Jackson has done it four straight years, three with the Bucs.

MISSING TEDFORD: Losing the former Cal coach left play-calling duties to QB coach Marcus Arroyo, a first-year NFL assistant. Smith won't say how much going through the entire season without an offensive coordinator hurt, but McCown summed it up: "It tough. ... There's a reason every team has one."

IMPROVED D': Smith's team prospered in Chicago on stingy defense. Tampa Bay made strides after its bye week, playing better against the run, forcing more turnovers and cutting down on points allowed. McCoy and linebacker Lavonte David form the nucleus of a unit that bolsters Smith's optimism.

"I think we were closer to how we are going to eventually play defensive football around here, but no, we are not there yet," Smith said. "We wouldn't be 2-14 if we were there."


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