NFL free agency starts next week. The NFL draft is next month.
The Bucs' future starts … well, let's hope it is already underway with closed-door meetings, the kind where people rub their temples and write on white boards and use PowerPoints.
What the Bucs do next week and next month and the month after that will have an effect on this franchise not just for next season, but for years to come.
It's hard to remember the last time this franchise had a more important offseason.
At the very least, it's the most critical since 2009 when the Glazers blew out the Bruce Allen-Jon Gruden regime and started over with a new general manager, a new coach and a new quarterback.
Since then, the Bucs haven't gotten much better. The team still hasn't made the playoffs — a streak that is now at five seasons, matched only by fellow bottom-feeders such as the Bills, Browns, Jaguars, Raiders and Rams.
When you're in that kind of slump with that kind of sorry company, you know what's at stake?
Jobs, for starters. General manager Mark Dominik's. Probably quarterback Josh Freeman's. Maybe even head coach Greg Schiano's.
Look at this way, if we're having this same conversation a year from now about what the Bucs need to do to finally make the playoffs then heads most certainly will roll, office nameplates will be changed and lockers will be cleared.
Here are a few random thoughts as the Bucs prepare for this crucial offseason.
Freeman needs a good offseason
Here's a better way to put it: Freeman needs the Bucs to have a good offseason. That way, the entire team improves and that is when his stock goes up.
The Bucs haven't made the playoffs since Freeman took over as a starter midway through the 2009 season. Part of that, of course, is Freeman's fault. He is 24-32 as a starter, and has bounced around from being really good to really bad.
At the same time, it would be unfair to pin the Bucs' issues all on Freeman. Last season, he threw for 4,065 yards with 27 touchdowns. The Bucs ended up 7-9 because their defense acted as if it had never heard of the forward pass.
Funny how it all works out. If the defense is halfway decent, the Bucs make the playoffs and Freeman is seen as good QB. Instead, the defense was lousy and Freeman is a quarterback who hasn't proven himself.
Freeman's contract is up after next season. Say the defense is horrible (again) and the Bucs go 7-9 (again) and miss the playoffs (again). Freeman will still be viewed as a QB who isn't a winner. His new agents recently had a positive introductory meeting with the team, but after another subpar season would the Bucs be willing to sign him to a long-term deal worth millions?
At that point, he might join the list of former Bucs quarterbacks who were surrounded by subpar talent in Tampa Bay, let go and, ultimately, had pretty good careers. Guys such as Steve Young, Vinny Testaverde and Trent Dilfer.
Mark Dominik's job is at stake
No one needs a good offseason, and thus a good 2013, more than Dominik. If there's a line forming at the chopping block, Dominik is first. Despite solid draft picks (Freeman, Gerald McCoy, Mike Williams, Mark Barron, Doug Martin and Lavonte David) and shrewd free-agent spending last year (Vincent Jackson, Carl Nicks), Dominik is judged by wins and losses and playoff appearances.
Bottom line: the Bucs are 24-40 since Dominik has been GM.
But here's the thing: I'm not sure who is making the call these days over at One Buc Place, Dominik or Schiano? It's hard to imagine that Schiano doesn't have his fingerprints on everything the Bucs do. In fact, he might have a complete grip on the Bucs' future, determining who stays and who goes.
Schiano needs good offseason, too
While no one is suggesting that Schiano is on a hot seat just yet, think about this scenario:
The Bucs offseason doesn't go as planned. The defense isn't fixed. The Bucs go 7-9 or worse. They part ways with Freeman.
At that point, Schiano would be on the verge of being a third-year coach trying to break in a new quarterback, perhaps even a rookie, with one season to save his job.
Suddenly, you become one of those organizations like the Dolphins or Jaguars. You change the coach, lose for two seasons, and then change the quarterback. Two more losing seasons go by and you change the coach again. It's an endless cycle of changing the coach then the QB. The only thing that doesn't change is your spot at the bottom of the standings.
What will the Bucs do?
Yikes, do the Bucs have some work to do in this critical offseason.
They need at least one and, more than likely, two cornerbacks. They need a pass rusher. They need help at linebacker. They probably need an interior defensive lineman.
Does safety Ronde Barber come back? Does cornerback Eric Wright? Do you bring in another quarterback to push Freeman?
Do the Bucs attack their needs by overspending in free agency or taking gambles in the draft?
There are no easy calls, no simple solutions. Just questions.
If no one at One Buc Place has the answers right now, there will be a whole new set of questions next year.
And, you would have to assume, different people to address them.