TAMPA, Fla. -- After his Tampa Bay Buccaneers tripled their win total from the previous year and played meaningful games in December, coach Lovie Smith set a high standard for next season.
Playoffs are the mission.
"I'm saying it should," Smith said Monday, when asked if the 2016 team should make the postseason.
"We were 6-6 with a quarter [of the schedule] to go. That was progress to get in position, and things looked pretty bright for us. We weren't quite ready to take that next step then. But we'll make the corrections, the moves that we have to make in order to finish the 2016 season."
The Bucs closed with a four-game skid and finished 6-10. One day after the season finale, Smith's outlook was clear: This was still a season of growth with rookie QB Jameis Winston, a revitalized Doug Martin and new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter. The improvement over 2014, which was Smith's debut with Tampa Bay, is enough for the coach to expect that the Bucs will be ready to end the franchise's eight-season playoff drought.
"I think the message is pretty clear for all of us," Smith said. "It is about next year -- guys, we're going to be a good football team. We've laid the foundation. Now it's time for us to reap the benefits of that. That's the message going forward. If you believe in what we're doing right now, we all will do more, and we're going to have better success next year. Once we get to a point where it's a critical time, we're going to get over the hump next time."
The Bucs were in a strong position to challenge for the NFC's second wild-card spot before consecutive losses to New Orleans, St. Louis, Chicago and Carolina. Before then, Tampa Bay hadn't lost more than two straight games.
The late slide placed the Bucs in last place in the NFC South for a record-setting fifth consecutive year. Tampa Bay hasn't made the postseason since losing in the wild-card round to the New York Giants after going 9-7 in 2007. The Bucs have posted a winning record just twice in the past eight seasons.
Players shared Smith's optimism that next season would be different.
"I'm going to guarantee that everybody is going to get back home and work on things they need to work on, and they're going to come back and work harder and get to work, get to that point where we need to be," linebacker Lavonte David said. "We were in the playoff race, and now we're just going to try to stay in that playoff race next year."
Added cornerback Alterraun Verner: "You saw the improvements. You saw we were 6-6 [and] in the playoff hunt. And we just couldn't finish. We didn't finish this year. We were very close. It's going to happen. I have a feeling that it's going to happen here, and the city of Tampa is going to be very proud of this team."
After a season of building, Smith expects that future to include a postseason berth soon.
"When you get to 6-6 in a season, it makes you think that maybe we were a little bit farther along and we could get it done. But in the end, we weren't quite there," he said. "We're not where we want to be. And eventually, we're going to get there. It's a process that you go through. Normally, you can't skip any steps along the way. We haven't skipped any steps. But we realize we're in Year 3. We need to see the results of everything we've been doing."