It was midway through the third period, and the big kids were picking on the little kids, and the Bucs defenders were backing up so often you feared they might end up in Sarasota, when the strangest notion of them all floated through Raymond James Stadium.
For goodness' sake, I miss Chris Hovan.
That's how badly the Saints beat up the Bucs on Sunday. They battered them, they bullied them, and they left them looking so bewildered that any possible answer at all, even last year's incorrect ones, like Hovan, seemed like a fine idea at the time. Anything, just so it might help stop the stampede.
Here we go again.
And there goes another opposing running back. Again.
Once again, an NFL opponent has run the Bucs out of the stadium. No surprise there. These days, they could not stop a parked car in rush hour.
Every week, it is the same. An opposing back, any opposing back, is Jim Brown, and if he is unable to play, his backup is Walter Payton, and if he is out, it's Barry Sanders. As for the Bucs, the defense seems made up of matadors and missing persons.
Frankly, they rarely slow anyone down, and they never stop anyone.
By now, this was supposed to be better, wasn't it? By now, the open door in the middle of the defense was supposed to be closed and under guard. By now, there was at least supposed to be a speed bump. Wasn't there?
After all, the Bucs spent the No. 3 pick on one defensive tackle (Gerald McCoy), and the No. 35 pick on another (Brian Price), and they spent almost $70 million in contracts. Even given the price of muscle these days, that was supposed to help some.
It hasn't. Last year, the Bucs gave up 158.2 yards per game on the ground. This year, they have given up 157. Somehow, it doesn't feel 43 inches better. Not when Pittsburgh's Rashard Mendenhall rushed for 143 yards. Not when Cincinnati's Cedric Benson rushed for 144. Not when New Orleans' Chris Ivory rushed for 158.
All together now:
Of all the disappointing viewpoints of Sunday's 31-6 loss to the Saints, this was the worst. It would have been bad enough if Drew Brees, a great quarterback, had diced up the Bucs. (By the way, he did.) It would have been something else if Jonathan Vilma, a fierce linebacker, had helped shut down the Bucs. (By the way, he did.) But on a day when the Saints played without Pierre Thomas and without Reggie Bush, who foresaw Chris Ivory, star?
Of course, you have never heard of Ivory. Why would you have? Last year, he was the third-leading ground-gainer for Tiffin, a Division II school in Ohio that didn't win a game. Playing against the likes of Ferris State and Findlay and Hillsdale and Northwood, Ivory gained only 223 yards.
If Saints coach Sean Payton had allowed it on Sunday, Ivory could have gained that much against the Bucs. Against Tampa Bay, the guy ran like his pregame meal had been an Earl Campbell milk shake. He looked like a polar bear sprinting through penguins.
Then again, doesn't everyone?
Consider this: Through Sunday's games, there have been 10 rushing performances of 143 yards or more.
Three of them have been against the Bucs.
So what's the problem? Bad tackling, for one thing. The Bucs tackle opposing runners like a bug attacks a windshield. The result is never effective, and it is never pretty.
Young players, for another. No one likes to admit it, but success takes a little time. You don't just toss a rookie into the defensive interior and expect him to collect skulls. Cornerback Ronde Barber talks often about "the game above the neck" when it comes to young players. Neither McCoy nor Price yet play with decisiveness or danger.
That said, McCoy and Price seem to be struggling much more than Detroit rookie Ndamukong Suh, the player they are most often compared to. When a back whisks between the two of them for a large gain, there is more than youth at play.
"I don't know what it is," McCoy says quietly. "I know I'm young and I'm a rookie, but I want to be one of those guys who puts it all on my back. If the defense didn't play well, I feel like it's my fault.
"I'm so worried about playing the right way instead of just making the play that it's slowing me down. I'm still trying to learn when to fall back or how long to stay in my gap, those sorts of things. We're missing too many tackles. We just have to be playmakers. We have to make that impossible play. We have to make that great play."
For that matter, how about a routine play? That would be a start.
Or, better yet, a stop.
And just asking, but how much do you think the Rams' Steven Jackson is looking forward to next week's game?
Besides, you know, a lot.