What if it doesn't work?
For all the questions that surround the Bucs heading into the 2012 season, that is the biggest one of all.
There are new coaches. New players. A new system on offense. A new system on defense. A new attitude. A new way of doing things. A new optimism.
But (gulp) what if it doesn't work?
New coach Greg Schiano torpedoed into town and is trying to fix a year's worth of problems in a matter of weeks. And the clock is ticking. You can actually see it.
In the locker room at One Buc Place hangs a running clock counting down the days, hours, minutes, seconds and even tenths of seconds until the regular-season opening kickoff against the Panthers on Sept. 9.
It feels more like a ticking bomb than an invigorating countdown to liftoff.
"The one enemy we have is time,'' Schiano said. "We're constantly fighting to use it to the best of our ability and efficiently. That's why the clock is ticking all the time. Now granted, you'll get used to it.
"It's there all the time. But the numbers are moving. You can feel that. It's a subconscious (thing) that we're racing the clock to get ready.''
The clock also underscores how much information, conditioning and personality Schiano is trying to cram into his team in such a short period of time. You can't help but wonder if it's all too much. You can't help but wonder if at some point, the team might start stuttering, sputtering and smoking and suffer some sort of system overload.
The Bucs have practiced in full pads more than most teams do. Schiano promises his team will be rested and ready on opening day. But more than once lately, he has talked about his team's fatigue. The commitment asked both physically and mentally has made Schiano's first training camp, perhaps, the most demanding anyone has seen in these parts since the Ray Perkins days (1987-90).
Perkins, who played for legendary taskmaster Bear Bryant at Alabama, was known for beating his teams into shape. It made for fast starts but awful finishes. In 1990, the Bucs started 4-2, hit a wall, lost six in a row and finished 6-10, and Perkins lost his job.
What if that happens to the 2012 Bucs? What if they run out of gas? These Bucs are in uncharted territory. No one knows if Schiano has given them way too much way too soon. That ticking clock says the team still has more than two weeks to get this all sorted out, but tonight's home game against the Patriots is a meaningful gauge.
"It's like a dress rehearsal for a real game,'' left guard Carl Nicks said.
Here's what makes tonight's game worth watching: The Bucs' starters will play at least a half. Same for the Pats, one of the best teams in football, offering the Bucs a good litmus test.
Most of all, tonight's game is important because we likely won't see the Bucs regulars in next week's preseason finale. This is their last chance to show where they are and how far they have to go.
"We're trying to get this thing put together for the first game of the season,'' cornerback Eric Wright said.
Here's what we need to see tonight to believe this team is heading in the right direction.
Josh Freeman must connect with Vincent Jackson
The quarterback and No. 1 receiver have hooked up only once for 8 yards. It would be nice to see Jackson make a few catches — especially against a secondary not expected to be great.
The offensive line must get into rhythm
With left tackle Donald Penn playing for the first time this preseason, the offensive line needs to look like a cohesive unit that can push people around and not like the offensive line that scrambled to protect the quarterback last week.
"Just come out fresh … and execute,'' Nicks said.
The defensive line must make an impact
The defense hasn't played that poorly. In fact, the first team looked fairly decent against both the Dolphins and Titans. But it would be nice to see a little more heat on the quarterback. In the first two weeks, the opponents have dropped back to pass 76 times and the Bucs have recorded only one sack.
Show some intensity
In two games, the Bucs have been outgained 695-350. True, a lot of those yards on both sides were piled up by players who will be tending bar, selling insurance or teaching gym class in a few weeks.
Still, remember last year when the Bucs had their doors blown off 31-14 in a preseason game because they couldn't match the tempo and intensity of these same Patriots? That can't happen again.
The Bucs need to compete. They need to look sharp. They need to look like things are heading in the right direction.
"I want to see our operation become more efficient,'' Schiano said. "I want to see us perform.''
The clock is ticking. Many questions remain unanswered, including the scariest of all:
What if it doesn't work?
Tom Jones can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and heard from 6 to 9 a.m. weekdays on WDAE-620.