TAMPA — They are men of faith, these Buccaneers.
Faith in medicine, in rehabilitation, in youth. Faith in magic, in theories, in mystery. Faith in the idea that a receiving corps with one gimpy star and a lot of uncertainty can somehow become a thing of beauty.
So when you see Michael Clayton twisting his body to grab a pass thrown behind him Saturday night, do you also have faith it is possible? When you see Maurice Stovall eluding tacklers after a short pass, does your confidence grow? When you see Ike Hilliard keeping another drive alive on third down, do you become a believer?
Or are you waiting for it all to fall apart?
Because, honestly folks, it could go either way.
The Bucs have some talent at receiver, no doubt about that. Three players on the roster have had 1,000-yard seasons as receivers. A fourth once had a 996-yard season.
That seems like a deep lineup of proven veterans that would be the envy of most teams. Except there's a, um, catch to these receivers. Most of their big seasons are so far gone, you can't even see them in the rearview mirror.
And that is where faith becomes a necessity.
The Bucs have faith Joey Galloway can still be a big-game performer, even though the last time we saw him in a game, he was walking away with a bum shoulder. And now a groin injury has kept him from showing up in 2008.
The Bucs have faith Clayton's three-year journey to nowhere is finally complete. They have faith their medical team can keep Hilliard clicking in his 12th NFL season. They have faith Antonio Bryant can keep his temper in check and revive his career after being traded, released and suspended in his first six NFL seasons.
"You're saying they're not sure bets, but these are guys who have stepped up and made plays whenever they've had the opportunity," receivers coach Richard Mann said. "And you saw them do that tonight."
Yes, but this was supposed to be the area the Bucs were going to address in the offseason. They had a Pro Bowl quarterback, an emerging offensive line and a handful of running backs, but it certainly appeared as if they did not have enough threats capable of running downfield.
And there were a handful of free-agent receivers to be had. Bernard Berrian, Donte Stallworth and Randy Moss signed big-money deals. Bryant Johnson, D.J. Hackett and Devery Henderson were signed for a lot less.
So where did that leave the Bucs?
With a heck of a lot of question marks.
Maybe it was smart business to avoid fat contracts for free agents who weren't sure bets. And maybe Bryant will turn out to be the steal of the offseason.
But as of today, a little less than two weeks before the season opener, it is difficult to have a lot of confidence that this team can stretch the field.
The Bucs have had one completion of more than 20 yards to a wideout in three preseason games. You could point out Galloway has missed all three games and Bryant sat out Saturday with a tender knee, but isn't that part of the concern?
Look, Galloway has been amazing the past three seasons. He may be the most consistent deep threat this franchise has known. But Galloway will turn 37 this season, and it is rare to find a No. 1 receiver at that age.
Of course, the Bucs can make do with a shorter passing game. They can use Warrick Dunn coming out of the backfield or lining up as a flanker, and they have Alex Smith getting better and better at tight end.
But it's a tricky business trying to negotiate the length of a football field without the fear of a vertical passing game.
"I think it says a lot that they haven't gone out and drafted a receiver in the first round," Clayton said. "They know exactly what they have here, and they have faith in us. We have big guys who can block downfield, we have guys who can catch the ball over the middle, we've got savvy veterans like Joey Galloway and Ike Hilliard.
"I feel confident this group can get the job done when the opportunity presents itself."
Essentially, the Bucs need two of these gambles to pay off. They need Galloway to continue defying age, or they need Clayton to prove a three-year slump is behind him. They need Bryant to show 32 teams screwed up by not signing him in 2007, or they need Stovall to become a factor after two years of sitting on the bench.
The Bucs need something special out of their receivers in 2008.
And, today, that requires quite a bit of faith.
John Romano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.