On the day they were eliminated from the playoffs, the Bucs finally looked worthy of them.
If you are looking for a way to remember this team, and this turnaround, that seems as good a place to begin as any.
In the end, they were good enough for the playoffs. They were talented enough, and they were tough enough, and they were tenacious enough. If things had gone differently Sunday, if Jay Cutler wasn't quite Jay Cutler and if Rex Grossman was better than Rex Grossman, the Bucs could have been in the postseason, and their presence would not have embarrassed anyone.
They were bold enough. Did you see the Bucs fake a quarterback sneak Sunday on fourth and 1? With survival on the line, did you see Josh Freeman take a step toward the line, then retreat and look toward Kellen Winslow? And when Winslow was covered, did you see him continue to backpedal until he found Mike Williams in the end zone?
They were skilled enough. Did you see Bam-Bam Blount finish off a 1,000-yard season despite only seven starts? Did you see Freeman have a quarterback rating of 100-plus for the seventh time this season (the Bucs were 7-0 in those games)?
They were resilient enough. Did you see the Bucs hold a powerful Saints offense to one touchdown while depending on strangers in the secondary and vagabonds on the defensive line?
In most seasons, the Bucs even won enough games. But not this time. Not unless NFL commissioner Roger Goodell declares them the champion of the NFC West because of their 4-0 record in that division.
Which brings us to this: Next year, shouldn't Raheem Morris talk about a race to 12? Or, better yet, 14?
This was the finest day of these Bucs. They beat the Saints 23-13, their first victory of the year over a team with a winning record. They finished with seven more victories than last season, a franchise record for improvement. Most of all, they left fans disappointed the season was over, as opposed to last year when most people couldn't wait for the bleeding to cease.
In reflection, say this for the 2010 Bucs: They left the season smiling. That isn't the same as the playoffs, but given the circumstances, it isn't bad, either.
For the teams that make the playoffs, all but one — the Super Bowl champion — will leave the field in disappointment and, as such, will spend the offseason looking backward at what might have been. The Bucs, on the other hand, wrapped up the best nonplayoff season you can imagine. It shouldn't be hard to convince the players to think about what is yet to come.
That's the thing about the Bucs. When they are at their best, you cannot help but think of the seasons to come. In that way, Sunday's victory over the defending Super Bowl champions felt more like a beginning than an end.
There was a moment, late in the day, when the Bucs locker room had mostly cleared out. Only three players remained. Freeman was trying to figure out his tie, which seemed to give him more problems than secondaries have lately. Wide receiver Mike Williams was on his cell phone. LeGarrette Blount was sitting on the far side of Williams, joking around with Freeman.
Think about the possibilities. Freeman is already the best quarterback this franchise has ever had. Blount could be the best running back. Williams might be the best receiver. There are a lot of yards in those three players, a lot of touchdowns, a lot of moments. And, yes, a lot of playoff games.
There are others. Ted Larsen will start at guard for this team for a long time. Dezmon Briscoe has a chance at wide receiver. Preston Parker, too. For the Bucs, this was a year of discovery.
For the Bucs, for Morris, this was also one of those years that changed everything. Tony Dungy had one of those back in '97, remember, when he altered the way the nation thought of this team. For Morris, this might have been that season.
No one is going to doubt this team next year. No one is going to predict two wins or three. From now on, the expectations are raised. From now on, the race is far beyond 10. From now on, no one is going to suggest a season was a success unless it ends in the playoffs.
For this season, however, a seven-game improvement is impressive enough. The introduction of a talented offensive huddle is a good thing. The command that Morris established in his locker room is terrific. In professional sports, however, there is overachievement and there is underachievement. And the Bucs overachieved dramatically. They did not give in to their injuries, and they did not make excuses, and they got better.
"The thing that bothers me," Freeman said softly, "is that we should have won more. We should have won 12 or 13."
As the Bucs milled around their locker room, their future in the wobbly fingers of Cutler and Grossman, bad quarterbacks at large, they talked about what making the playoffs, and what missing them, would mean.
For a professional athlete, it was a strange moment. The air was filled with accomplishment, but no one knew if there was enough of it. Tackle Donald Penn referred to it as flying standby toward the playoffs and being ready to accept a middle seat if it was offered.
Still, the thought of being left out didn't seem to cause widespread disappointment. When a team jumps from three wins to 10, how disappointed can it be? Sure, the Bucs should have beaten Detroit, and they should have at least earned a split with Atlanta. But every team can play that game.
Besides, you get the feeling that this team knows what it can become, too.
Next year, it should race to February.