In the end, not even winning was enough.
Yes, the Bucs finally won a game Sunday, and yes, that beats the alternative. If you have witnessed how desperately the Bucs have stumbled around over the last month and a half, you would have to agree this was one of the better days the team has endured lately.
On the other hand, the playoffs were not achieved, and a winning season was not obtained, and face was not saved. Confetti did not fall, and no one took home a trophy, and it is not likely customers are charging the ticket window to guarantee seats for next year.
As victories go, this one was not big enough to make anyone forget about the decade-long drought since this team has won a playoff game.
So, yeah, it was a good victory, but it was a small one. It was one of those wistful games that suggests a team was capable of more all along. A memorable day in a lousy year, but not much more than that.
Ah, but if you are among the hopeful who think that a victory such as this can be a promise of a better day to come, then perhaps the Bucs' 22-17 victory over a very good Falcons team is worth a smile, after all.
And if you still know where such optimism lives, you might want to mention it to Gerald McCoy. He might rent a winter place there.
"We don't plan on feeling this anymore," said McCoy, the Bucs' Pro Bowl defensive tackle. "When next season is over, we don't plan on being done. Next year, we plan on going into a bye week."
It's time, isn't it? For the past decade, the Bucs have been among the bottom third of teams in the NFL. Only eight teams have won fewer games.
Tampa Bay hasn't won a playoff game in 10 years and, in fact, it hasn't played in one for five years. The harsh truth is the Bucs are closer to the Browns than they are the Patriots, closer to the Chiefs than they are the Packers.
Will next year be different?
A day such as Sunday suggests … maybe.
That's what winning does. It enables fans to imagine other victories to come. When you see Josh Freeman have a mostly good day, and when you see Doug Martin running loose in the secondary, and when you see Lavonte David run and tackle, it is easy to wonder how they will look with better teammates around them.
When you see McCoy burst through the middle, or Mark Barron knock away a key pass at the end, or Mike Williams catch six passes, it is easy to wonder how much better they can get.
You can say the same of head coach Greg Schiano, a rookie himself. There is no reason to assume Schiano won't be better next year; smart people learn as they go.
"I think the hardest thing to do in pro sports is win an NFL football game," Schiano said. "I don't think people realize how hard it is to do it and how much goes into each and every game. You learn to do it, because of the pressure situations at the end, game on the line. You get better at that the more times you are in it together. It's just putting it in the bank."
Oh, there is work to be done. As a franchise, talentwise the Bucs are still behind Atlanta and New Orleans, and if they are ahead of Carolina, it isn't by much.
Defensively, the Bucs have some decisions to make. Can they continue to play a scheme that left them threatening to give up more passing yardage than any team in the history of the league? Mind you, the Bucs have had secondaries with Toast Jones and Sabby Piscitelli and Tanard Jackson, and this one gave up more than any of them. It gave up more than the 0-26 Bucs and the 0-16 Lions.
Ah, yes, and then there is the quarterback. Overall, Freeman had a good day on Sunday, but his one interception was the kind that drives fans wacky. He stared down his receiver, again, and he threw into coverage, again, and he almost let the Falcons back in the game. The difference is that on his next drive, Freeman drove the Bucs 80 yards in four plays to score the eventual winning touchdown.
What else do the Bucs need? They need a defensive end who makes quarterbacks weep at the mention of his name. They need a corner … or two … maybe three. They need a complete tight end. They need a slot receiver who is tough enough to catch the ball over the middle. They need a more dangerous kick returner.
Most of all, what they need is a season that matters. They need the energy a team gets as it comes down the stretch with the playoffs within reach. They need the buzz from a city that has been too long without it. They need a highlight, or two, that fans will compare to the long-ago seasons.
As long as you're counting, they could use a little more confetti.
Listen to Gary Shelton weekdays from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. on 98.7-FM the Fan.