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An NFL lockout would stand in the way of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' progress

The iron gates of One Buc Place are strong and foreboding. Add a bit of barbed wire to the bars and they could pass for Alcatraz gates. Folsom gates, maybe.

By design, they are built to keep certain things at a distance. Wackadoodle fans, for one thing. Chuckleheaded columnists, from time to time. Also, former coaches. Once locked, these gates can keep a lot of things at bay.

Who knows?

Maybe even success.

For the Tampa Bay Bucs, and for those who follow along, this is the biggest risk of a possible NFL lockout. The more Roger Goodell blathers, and the more DeMaurice Smith yammers, the worse it might be for the Bucs. Locking the offseason outside wouldn't do any team any good, but potentially, it could hurt the Bucs as much as anyone.

Let's face it: The NFL labor negotiations are about greedy people arguing over money. Who cares? Deep down, it isn't going to bother you if the tailback is making $4 million instead of $6 million next year. And even if you prefer Goodell's 18-game schedule, you can live with 16.

Until the sides start discussing whether it's time to put a cap on ticket prices or lift the blackout rule 50 percent of the time in publicly funded stadiums, most of us don't care. And we don't care that we don't care.

On the other hand, when the money talk starts standing in the way of a team's progress, then it's time to pay attention.

Start with this: The Bucs need this offseason. They need it because they are so young. They need it because their defense needs the same sort of talent infusion as the offense got a year ago. They need it because they are a team on the rise. They need it because there is improvement yet to be made. They need it for the chemistry and cohesion that such times offer.

Most of all, they need it because last offseason was so darned nifty.

Do you want to know when the Bucs transformed from a very bad team to a pretty good one? It was last offseason, in those quiet months when no one pays much attention. That's when Josh Freeman grew into a quarterback, and when Raheem Morris grew into a head coach and when Mark Dominik grew into a general manager.

They keep score in the fall, but it is in the spring and summer that a football team fashions its future. This time last year, Freeman was spending his days in a film room, learning how to be a quarterback. This time last year, the Bucs were checking out Mike Williams and LeGarrette Blount.

Considering the season that followed, you could argue the Bucs had the finest offseason of any team in the NFL last year. Granted, that was particularly noticeable when compared to the train wreck of the previous offseason that featured Jeff Jagodzinski and the Byron Leftwich Dancers, but still, it was last offseason when things changed. The Bucs righted the ship, changed the direction and transformed into a smart, efficient organization once again.

Right about now, the Bucs could stand a little more of the same.

If the history of the NFL teaches us anything, it is that one year's improvement doesn't automatically continue to the next. But the longer the lockout, the easier it is to expect the status quo. Good teams are still going to be good teams, because they usually have the best organizations, and the best quarterbacks and the best defense. Conversely, bad teams are still going to struggle to get out of their own way no matter how long a lockout lasts.

So what happens to the teams that are on their way up? We'll see. But I've never seen anything quite like the 1987 work stoppage to destroy a team's chemistry.

How close are the Bucs? While watching the Packers beat the Steelers in last month's Super Bowl, it was easy to wonder just how far away from these teams, and that game, the Bucs were.

Two years, I thought. If nothing gets in their way but the teams on their schedule, I think they'll be a playoff team, but I still think they'll lack the maturity to make a real run at the Super Bowl. Besides, they made about two years' progress in one last year, and it's hard to ask for that again. Give the front office two years to get the defense right and let the offense grow up and this team should be a threat.

Still, the Bucs need an offseason. They need to find a defensive end (or two) and a linebacker (or two). They need Davin Joseph to autograph a contract. They need Gerald McCoy to get stronger and Blount to become a complete back and Williams to become more polished and Arrelious Benn to harness his ability. They need Freeman to convince people he's a top five quarterback, not just a top 10.

Just a thought, but it might help if the film room was open and the footballs were inflated.

In the meantime, Goodell postures, and Smith poses, and soon, the gates will begin to close.

With any luck, they will close on someone's foot.

An NFL lockout would stand in the way of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' progress 02/28/11 [Last modified: Monday, February 28, 2011 8:33pm]
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