TAMPA, Fla. -- When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers look at their upcoming opponent, the Carolina Panthers, they see a squad they would like to be one day. The Panthers are the three-time defending NFC South champs, but not long ago there were rumblings of discontent in Charlotte.
Their young quarterback, Cam Newton, was a former No. 1 overall pick -- but he wasn't going to be the leader the Panthers needed. And Ron Rivera wasn't the right coach. Now Newton is an MVP candidate and Rivera has guided the team to a 14-1 record this season.
The Bucs drafted a quarterback with the first overall pick last April, and they hope Jameis Winston can enjoy the same career trajectory as Newton's.
"Yes, they were [a lot like Tampa Bay] and that's what gives us hope too," Bucs head coach Lovie Smith, whose team is 6-9, said Wednesday. "It seems like you have to be really down and get an opportunity to get a couple of players. Getting, of course, Cam Newton sends you in the right direction. Getting Luke Kuechly sends you in the right direction and they have done a great job with their personnel. They just kind of stayed the course of who they were.
"We've seen them get better and better, unfortunately for the rest of us in the NFC South -- but it is a model of what we're going to do."
After winning a total of 13 games the first two years with Newton, Carolina won 12 in 2013 to start their run of division titles.
"They've been patient with their coaches, they've drafted good players," Bucs offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter said. "They've acquired good players and they are very well coached on both sides of the ball.
"I mentioned this I think last week," Koetter said. "Here we sit today with two Pro Bowl players. They have 10 Pro Bowl players, so they have good talent. They've developed that talent, that talent has grown within that system and they're reaping the rewards of that right now. We talked to our guys: If you want to compete for a division title, we've got to go through Carolina. They're the team to beat right now."
Winston and Newton both have had similar journeys to the NFL. Both are former Heisman Trophy winners and led their colleges to the BCS title. Winston said he hopes for another thing they will eventually share -- success in the NFL.
"It's easy to say, 'Yeah, I see those similarities,' but the one thing about that guy that you've got to love -- he's a winner," Winston said. "And that's what I want to be. I want to be a winner. What comes with being a winner is getting the other guys to want to be winners with you. I believe that's what he did.
"To answer your question, yes I can be like Cam, but right now I'm not. That's something that I would love to be in the future. One thing I want someone to always say about me -- and what you can say about him right now, especially while he's growing -- he's a winner."
That's what the Bucs want as well.