Think of it as a luxury car. Sleek and powerful. Dependable and efficient. This car will take you places. This car won't let you down.
And, then, you pretty much leave it alone for a decade. You do not polish. You do not fine-tune. Over the years, you buy a couple of parts, just to keep it running, but they don't really fit.
Then, one day you look in the driveway and see a rusted shell, and you think: Gee. What happened to my ride?
Pretty much, that's the story of the Bucs defense, which has suddenly become a clunker.
For years, defense was the calling card of the Bucs. The offense was going to sputter and stall, and the special teams seemed to concentrate only on collecting those pesky block-in-the-back penalties. Ah, but the defense. The defense showed up almost every week, and it made almost every tackle, and it made up for almost every shortcoming.
The Bucs defense was so good, it made winning possible. It was so good, it made the offense tolerable. It was so good — and in hindsight, this was its undoing — that it didn't seem to need any help. There were always wheels that squeaked louder.
And so the empire grew old, and it crumbled, and these days, we stand around the rubble and the ruins and talk about the way things used to be. It happened to the Romans, and it happened to the Mings. Eventually, time catches up to all dynasties.
These days, the sight of the Bucs defense can make your eyes ache. For 11 of the previous 13 seasons, remember, the Bucs had been a top 10 defense. This year, they have surged to 29th. Only Buffalo has given up more yards on the ground. Only Kansas City has allowed more passes of 40 or more yards. Only Detroit has given up more points.
Not only that, but you should fasten your seat belt and return your tray to its upright and locked position.
Here comes New Orleans. Yikes.
Behold the Saints. They're first in the league in offense, first in the conference in passing and second in the conference in rushing. Quarterback Drew Brees is so good, he ought to play this one sitting in a lounge chair and dare the Bucs pass rush to get to him.
Time was, all of this talk about how good an opposing offense is would just tick the Bucs off. Back in the day, it happened with the Rams, with the Vikings, with the Raiders. A high-powered offense would come in, and the Bucs would remind everyone that defense dominated, too.
That was then, when players like Derrick Brooks and Warren Sapp and John Lynch and Simeon Rice and Hardy Nickerson and Ronde Barber and Shelton Quarles played on that side of the ball.
Ask yourself this: Which of those guys did the Bucs adequately replace? Pick a name. Any name.
That's the problem. The rebuilding should have begun long ago.
For years, this was such a lopsided team that most of the premium draft picks — those that weren't traded away — went toward offense. Think about it this way: In the natural order of the league, the Bucs defense should be led by 5-10 year veterans these days. But the Bucs have only two players — linebacker Barrett Ruud and backup defensive back Torrie Cox — left from the drafts from 2000 to 2006 (out of 21 picks spent on defense).
In hindsight, it's hard to quibble with the trade for Jon Gruden, who won a Super Bowl. But when you remember that the Bucs spent five No. 1s and three No. 2s for Gruden, Keyshawn Johnson and Kenyatta Walker, the price tag seems a little staggering. That's a lot of picks to trade away.
Then there is this. The Bucs haven't done enough with the picks they have had. Remember Gaines Adams, the fourth overall pick of the '07 draft? Remember Alan Zemaitis (fourth-rounder) in '06? Yes, the fourth round is getting kind of late, but Minnesota's Jared Allen was a fourth-rounder. For that matter, Pittsburgh linebacker James Harrison and Minnesota defensive tackle Pat Williams weren't drafted all.
Here's a tale for you. Back in 2005, when the NFL draft reached the third round, the Bucs took tight end Alex Smith. He wasn't a bad player. But three picks later, the Giants took defensive end Justin Tuck, who is now a Pro Bowl player. Who would you rather have?
Here's another: In 2008, when the Bucs had a brain cramp and picked Dexter Jackson in the second round, defensive end Calais Campbell was still on the board. Campbell is now starting for the Cardinals.
Now consider that the Bucs haven't used free agency to fill in the gaps, either. Time was, the Bucs found perfect fits with Nickerson and Rice. That sort of spending would help.
The result is a roster filled with other teams' discards. Consider this: Of the Bucs' 24 defensive players, 11 of them were signed as free agents (and a 12th, tackle Ryan Sims, was obtained in throwaway trade for a seventh-round draft pick). And, no, not the get-rich-quick kind of free agents, either. Only three Bucs defenders were first- or second-round draft picks by Tampa Bay.
When half of your players come from the recycle bin, it isn't a good thing. Especially when seven of your nine defensive linemen have spent time on the waiver wire or trade-him-for-whatever list (all but rookies Roy Miller and Kyle Moore).
After nine games, it's fairly obvious. The biggest problem with the Bucs is their defensive line. That isn't unexpected, either, when you consider the lack of pedigree. The Bucs drafted only three of their nine linemen. That includes rookies Miller and Moore. The third is Dre Moore, a former fourth-rounder who didn't make last year's team.
To sum up, why would you expect this to be a good defense?
Perhaps that is why the Dolphins' no-name offense was so successful late in last week's game. Chad Henne? Davone Bess? Brian Hartline?
And now the Bucs get Brees and Pierre Thomas and Marques Colston instead.