TAMPA, Fla. -- Middle linebacker Kwon Alexander returned to One Buc Place on Monday after serving his four-game suspension for violating the NFL's policy on performance-enhancing drugs. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers went winless without the high-impact rookie, and it's easy to wonder if his presence would have prevented the season-ending slide.
"He was definitely missed," Bucs coach Lovie Smith said. "You just look at the offensive side of the ball. It starts with the quarterback. Defensively, it starts with the [middle] linebacker.
"We had a chance to see what Kwon was able to do as a playmaker. He brought energy, toughness, relentless pursuit to the football. It's a lot. And when you don't have everything established, all the foundational pieces established and you lose one of those key pieces, you see the results."
Those results included the Bucs allowing at least 24 points in each of their final four games as hopes for clinching a playoff spot faded with losses to New Orleans, St. Louis, Chicago and Carolina. They allowed 174 yards rushing against the Bears, which was just 12 yards fewer than the season-worst total surrendered against Houston in Week 3. And before forcing two takeaways against the Panthers on Sunday, the Bucs went three games without collecting a turnover; Tampa Bay forced a turnover in all but one of its first 12 games.
After the Bucs beat Philadelphia in Week 11, Alexander blamed the suspension on an energy drink he had taken since high school.
"It's disappointing, but to be honest, I'm disappointed in myself more than anything, because all everyone kept saying is, 'Find out first,'" he said then. "If you're about to drink something, ask somebody first. So I'm disappointed in myself."
Alexander, a fourth-round pick out of LSU, quickly became one of the Bucs' top rookies after winning the starting middle linebacker job in training camp. He had 93 tackles, nine passes defensed, three sacks, two forced fumbles and two interceptions.
"I thought he did a great job going in and flying around," said Bruce Carter, the player Alexander beat out for the starting job. "Obviously, he's a rookie, so he's still got a lot to learn. But for his first year, I thought he was very productive. I think the team really responded to that, just seeing how good of a player he was."
Alexander didn't speak with reporters in the Bucs' locker room on Monday, but he did tweet that he was happy to be back at work.
Feels good to walk back in the facility today ! @TBBuccaneers— Alexander the Great (@Showtime17Kwon) January 4, 2016
Linebacker Lavonte David is eager to work with Alexander again.
"Nothing is going to change," David said. "We're going to have the same calls, the same things like that. People are going to run the same plays against us. We've got to be on the same page, and we've got to know where we can get hurt at on certain defenses. Me and him have just got to take our game to another level."
In Alexander's absence, Carter and Danny Lansanah received starts at middle linebacker, but Smith made it clear on multiple occasions that the situation wasn't ideal.
The coach reiterated that point Monday, leaving the Bucs with a feeling of, "What if?"
"We didn't win another game without him out there, and it's just not Kwon -- there were others," Smith said. "We missed [receiver] Vincent Jackson, and we just didn't play as well as we needed to. But we were definitely missing something without Kwon."