"Back to Football Chalk Talk.'' • That's what it was called. • It was lunchtime Tuesday and the Grand Hyatt Tampa Bay off the Courtney Campbell Causeway opened the big ballroom, set up a few dozen tables and served the usual luncheon fare of chicken and rice pilaf with cheesecake for dessert. • A few hundred business types from the bay area were on hand along with the Bucs cheerleaders. • Then came the guests of honor, the stars of the day, all decked out in their sharpest suits and ties. • There was Bucs co-chairman Bryan Glazer, general manager Mark Dominik and coach Greg Schiano. And, of course, there were players. Quarterback Josh Freeman, running back Doug Martin, defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and defensive-back newcomers Darrelle Revis and Dashon Goldson. • Here they were. The faces of the franchise.
And, as they sat on stage, I wondered if any team out there has as many questions surrounding the faces of the franchise as this team.
Okay, so the Bills and Raiders and Jets are so awful that if the NFL was like European soccer, those three teams might get relegated to a lower division.
The Bucs are way better than those teams. I think.
But the Bucs are rickety enough right now that predictions for how they'll finish this season have been all over the place.
Former Bucs coach Jon Gruden thinks they will win the NFC South, while most oddsmakers have them winning around six or seven games.
One ESPN writer picked the Bucs to go 9-7, while another has them ranked 22nd out of 32 in the power rankings.
And that's the thing about the Bucs. There is no consensus. They might be good. They might be bad. They could be both. Or neither. It seems that any record between 4-12 and 12-4 would not be shocking.
That's mostly because we just can't be sure what to think of these faces of the franchise, the leaders of this team.
That brings us back to Tuesday's luncheon.
The audience wrote out questions on cards, and selected ones were asked. It was ordinary stuff, such as asking Schiano what makes a great leader, and asking Freeman how he likes playing with Martin, and asking Revis how excited he was to be playing in Tampa Bay.
But you couldn't help but look at each one and have questions like this:
What's your deal? Are you any good at what you do? Are you going to have a good season?
That sounds harsh and it isn't meant to be. The answers aren't necessarily negative ones.
But can you imagine such a luncheon in New England and having such questions or doubts about Patriots owner Robert Kraft and coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady? In Denver, you think they are shrugging their shoulders over Pat Bowlen and John Elway and Peyton Manning? How do you think San Francisco feels about its 49ers?
And before you say it isn't fair to compare the Bucs to the elite teams in football, who else are we supposed to compare them to? Arena League teams? The NFL doesn't grade on a curve, you know.
Go through who was sitting on that stage Tuesday and ask yourself if you are completely sold on them. Ask if you are 100 percent confident they can and will be able perform at the highest levels.
Go ahead. Go through them.
Start with Glazer. He has spent money and said Tuesday, "There is a different energy this year.''
Know what isn't different? Blackouts. Look for more in 2013. Isn't that partly on the owner?
Doesn't it seem as if there is a disconnect between the owners and the fans? Glazer, by the way, turned down an interview request Tuesday, once again passing up a chance to get his message out and answering, once again, why there often seems to be a disconnect between the owners and this area.
Dominik has drafted well of late and, seemingly, chosen wisely on free agency. But he's still 24-40 as a GM. That should raise questions, no?
Schiano? A 7-9 rookie season was okay. So was clearing out all the dead wood. But can his hard-nosed style last in the NFL?
Freeman is up and down, consistently inconsistent and is such an enigma that even the Bucs aren't sure if they want to sign him long term.
Martin and McCoy had terrific seasons in 2012, but until they prove they can do it again, you wonder if they can do it again.
Revis? He hasn't played football in nearly a year. How can you not wonder if he will be the same player?
Goldson has been a terrific safety. He's a two-time All-Pro, but he was a two-time All-Pro on one of the best teams and defenses in the NFL in San Francisco. How might he be on a team with little pass rush, a rookie cornerback and a second-year safety?
Now throw in a preseason that did little to make anyone feel better, particularly about Freeman, who was bad, and Martin, who played little, and Revis, who didn't play at all.
"Would we like to have better performances in (game) situations? Absolutely,'' Dominik said about the preseason. "But I think the good thing is it was preseason. There were things that we could look at and say, 'We have to fix that,' and I think the coaches have done that.''
Look, it's not hopeless like it is in Buffalo. It's not futile like it is in Oakland. It's not a mess like it is with the Jets.
But it's not as hopeful and optimistic and confident as it is with the 49ers, Falcons, Seahawks, Packers, Patriots, Ravens and so on.
"I feel a lot of excitement in the locker room,'' Dominik said. "It's time to just go play.''
When they do play, starting Sunday, we'll start getting answers.
Until then, there are still plenty of questions to chew over with your lunch.