TAMPA — The Tampa Bay Buccaneers began the process off adjusting to life without three-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Vincent Jackson on Wednesday. At least they can say they’ve been here before.
That’s the good news.
The bad news is, when knee problems forced Jackson to sit out three games in November and two more in December last year, the Buccaneers struggled with the adjustment, losing three of those of five games.
Now, after placing Jackson on injured reserve with a damaged ACL on Tuesday, the Buccaneers will try to fill the void with virtually the same cast of inexperienced replacements they filled the void with last year.
That doesn’t bode well for a Tampa Bay team that will also continue to be without running back Doug Martin, who is out indefinitely now after suffering a setback in his recovery from a hamstring strain.
“How we’re going to absorb what Winston did for us is a little bit of a work in progress right now,’’ Buccaneers coach Dirk Koetter said. “We’ve made some moves there, but we may have to make some more.’’
The moves the Buccaneers have made so far include promoting second-year wide receiver Donteea Dye to the active roster and allowing veteran wideout Louis Murphy to return to the practice field.
Dye was signed off the street just three days ago, though, and Murphy could still be weeks away from contributing after spending the past year recovering from offseason knee surgery.
That may force the Buccaneers to expand the role of either second-year slot receiver Adam Humphries, special teams standout Russell Shepard or veteran Cecil Shorts.
The latter might be their best option, but Shorts has spent the last three weeks recovering from a hamstring strain of his own and is still not completely in tune with the offense.
“I feel like I’m caught up from a game-plan standpoint, but not necessarily the whole offense,’’ said Shorts, who was claimed off waivers from the Texans just before the start of the season.
“That’s why the bye week was good for me. It gave me a chance to study and catch up on things so I do feel pretty confident out there now. I feel like I at least know my assignments and can do my job.’’
No matter who it is, the Buccaneers are going to need someone to do his job, because Jackson’s departure means opponents will automatically roll their coverages to Mike Evans, who is sure to see an increase in double teams now. That’s what happened the two times last year that Jackson left the lineup.
While Evans adjusted rather well to the extra attention that was paid to him, quarterback Jameis Winston, did not. Evans caught 27 passes for 229 yards during the five games Jackson was out, including eight for 150 yards in one game and eight for 126 in another. Winston mostly struggled, though.
During the five games Jackson was out, Winston completed just 101 of 180 passes (56.1 percent) for 1,380 yards, three touchdowns and five interceptions for a passer rating of 73.1.
That’s a rating more than 10 points lower than the 28th-ranked 84.2 mark Winston compiled for the season overall, but Winston is a slightly more experienced quarterback now and so are his young targets.
“Last year when this happened we were a young group,’’ Humphries said. “We didn’t have much experience and (Dye) and I, we were just scrambling back then.
“It was our first year in the NFL and we were just trying to make a name for ourselves. But now I feel like we’ve kind of settled in to where we can just go out there and make plays.’’
Koetter can only hope. At 2-3 and with a 2-0 record in the NFC South, the Buccaneers have a chance to break into the playoff race if they can find a way win consistently over the next few weeks.
That won’t be easy without Jackson and Martin, and while Koetter worries about the lack of NFL experience his replacements have, he’s encouraged by the level of experience they have in his system.
“The fact that you’re not just totally having to teach a new guy what to do, that he has a familiarity with the terms and all those numbers and words and knows where to line up, that’s important,’’ he said.
“I mean, every team has injuries and so every team is reaching into the same reserve pool of players, so when those guys come in, getting someone who knows what to do is a good starting point.’’