TAMPA — Not good enough.
Better? Yes. Improved? No question.
But good enough? No. Not quite.
For the ninth consecutive season, the NFL playoffs will be held without the Bucs. And that really is the only takeaway in this results-based business.
This is a pass-fail league. If you make the playoffs, you pass. The Bucs failed. Again.
There is so much to like about what the Bucs did this season. They finished with a winning record, their first in six seasons. They had a five-game winning streak, their longest since the Super Bowl season of 2002. They won three more games than they did a season ago. That's definite improvement.
But no one should be satisfied that the season is over before the playoffs begin.
It's now up to general manager Jason Licht to fix that. Next season will be his fourth as the team's GM. Four years. That's a good chunk of time. More than enough to expect some postseason appearances.
Since Licht took over the Bucs, 20 of the NFL's 32 teams have made the playoffs. Now, to be fair, he inherited a mess and has done plenty to clean it up.
Jameis Winston, Mike Evans, Kwon Alexander, Vernon Hargreaves, Donovan Smith and Ali Marpet have been drafted on Licht's watch. Licht has made shrewd moves in free agency, bringing in the likes of Brent Grimes, Robert Ayers and Bryan Anger. He even has uncovered undrafted gems such as Adam Humphries and Cameron Brate.
And give him some credit for whatever role he had in making the switch from coach Lovie Smith to Dirk Koetter after last season, because that change, it would appear, has worked out, too.
All good moves, for sure. Just not good enough. The Bucs are a better team than when Licht walked in the door, but they remain on the outside looking in.
Winston is good, but the quarterback needs help. He needs more receivers, more weapons, more protection.
Gerald McCoy is good, but the defensive tackle needs more help, more pass rushers around him, more players to relieve double teams.
And it's Licht's job to find such help.
"I know Jason and his guys are anxious to get into free agency and get into the draft," Koetter said. "We've got to add some pieces. I think this team proved it will come out and compete week in and week out."
Koetter is right. The Bucs did play hard. And though not always perfect, especially during a rocky 1-3 start, Koetter did about as good of a job as he could. He squeezed every drop he could out of this team.
In the NFL, you are what your record says you are. The Bucs won a meaningless game Sunday, 17-16 over the Panthers, to finish 9-7. And though they lost a couple of games they should have won (the Rams and Raiders come to mind), 9-7 sounds about right for them. Look at the talent. Compare it to the rest of the league's. Nine wins is about the max anyone could have expected from this team.
Koetter deserves credit for changing the culture. Licht deserves credit for adding pieces to help Koetter change the culture. But the job remains far from finished. After all, let's not act like just making the playoffs is good enough.
"Our goal is to not only get in the tournament but to win the whole thing," Koetter said. "Only one out of 32 teams gets to do that, so we're certainly not satisfied with that, and I'm very sincere when I say that. We got to be better in all areas."
Koetter admits it's not easy to go from where the Bucs were to where they want to be. But he looks around at what he has and says, "I do think we're on the right track."
Yes, the Bucs are on the right track, meaning they are a better team now than they have been in the recent past. But they need more. A pass rusher. Another offensive lineman or two. A receiver who can fly. Another receiver after that. Maybe a safety. Maybe a running back.
Who is in charge of getting those players? Jason Licht.