TAMPA — Quarterback Jameis Winston has been preaching togetherness to the Buccaneers since the season began, breaking down the team huddle each day after practice with a request to his teammates to repeat the same message: “Family on three; one, two, three – family!’’
Then, just two days after cornerback Alterraun Verner’s father died of a heart attack while visiting his son for the Thanksgiving Day holiday, the family dynamic Winston has sought to create was about to be tested and fellow team captain Gerald McCoy knew it.
As McCoy prepared last Sunday to break down the pre-game huddle the same way Winston has, he demanded to know if his teammates really meant what they’ve been shouting in response to Winston every day or if they were just uttering hollow words.
McCoy got his answer during the Bucs 14-5 victory over the Seahawks.
There are any number of measurables that can help to define the Bucs upset of the NFC’s previous leader. They racked up 338 yards to just 245 for Seattle; limited the Seahawks to one third down conversion in 11 tries and sacked quarterback Russell Wilson six times.
The Bucs swear that the foundation for this victory cannot be measured, that much like the convincing victory they produced against the Falcons the day after rookie middle linebacker Kwon Alexander’s brother was shot to death last season, it was borne of a special bond.
Who’s to argue? Verner himself might have been the star of the game. Despite his loss he vowed to play, knowing the Bucs needed him to start so they could move rookie Vernon Hargreaves back to slot corner in place of Jude Adjei-Barimah, who was suspended last week for a PED violation.
Ironic how fate works sometimes. Verner, playing for his father and all the sacrifices he’d made as much as the Bucs, turned in one of his best games ever, recording two tackles, two pass breakups and an interception to close out the first half.
“That was Kwon-like right there,’’ wide receiver Mike Evans said, referring to the performance Alexander turned in against the Falcons last year when he too vowed to play in the face of tragedy and recorded a career-high 11 tackles and an interception to spark a 23-20 victory.
“That’s a power way above me when that kind of stuff happens,’’ Bucs coach Dirk Koetter added. “I mean, it was emotional in that locker room before the game. It was emotional during the coin flip. But it’s one thing to be emotional; it’s another to back it up. We backed it up. I’m telling you we’ve got some great guys in that locker room.’’
Great guys. Most teams want the best guys, 53 of them. Not the Bucs. General manager Jason Licht wants the “right 53 guys.’’ It’s an approach he learned while working for the Patriots and Bill Belichick. The Bucs aren’t there yet, but they’re close. The Seattle game was proof.
It was also validation. Not that he needed any, but Licht drafted Winston for reasons other than his ability to stand in the pocket and deliver the ball on time. There was an unmeasurable factor that played into his decision as well. The Seattle game confirmed its presence.
“Jameis was obviously a very talented, extremely competitive college quarterback,’’ Licht said on Tuesday. “But the authentic leadership that everyone is now seeing played an equivalent role in the reason we drafted him first overall.’’
Perhaps it’s playing an equivalent role in the Bucs resurgence. There’s no way of knowing for sure, of course, but Koetter won’t discount it. And why should he when the most important measurable of all says something significant has changed in Tampa Bay?
For weeks all the Bucs had to hang their hat on was that opening-day victory they scored against Atlanta. Since their 1-3 start, though, they have won five of seven and one of their two setbacks was an overtime loss to the Raiders.
Meanwhile, their rebound has come amid great adversity. None greater, of course, than that faced by Verner, but there has also been the loss of their top three running backs (Doug Martin, Charles Sims and Jacquizz Rodgers), their No. 2 wide receiver (Vincent Jackson) and their two best pass-rushing ends (Jacquies Smith and Robert Ayers) to injury.
Martin (six weeks), Sims (six and counting), Jackson (done for the season), Smith (out for the year as well) and Ayers (four weeks) have all missed most or all of the rally. Yet here are the Bucs back nipping at the NFC-South-leading Falcons’ talons.
At 6-5, the Bucs are suddenly a player in the wild car derby as well. Tied with fading Minnesota and one game ahead of New Orleans, Green Bay and Philadelphia, they stand just half a game behind Washington in the race for the NFC’s last playoff spot.
“We believe in ourselves and there’s this feeling we have that we all want to do it for this family,’’ rookie defensive end Noah Spence said. “That’s what we said before the (Seattle) game. ‘Do it for your family’ because you never play harder than you do for your family.
“I mean, I really can’t describe it, but the way we all wanted to play for Alterraun, it was like a family. That’s our motto now and it’s showing the way we practice, and the way we’re playing.’’