TAMPA — So far, they have earned your applause.
But have they restored your faith?
So far, they have exceeded your expectations.
But have they made you believe?
In a quarter of a season, there is much about the Bucs that has been answered and much that is unanswered. They are better, perhaps even much better.
But are they good?
They are off to a great start, but will they wind up with a great season? They are no longer among the dregs of the NFL, but are they yet among the big boys?
Say this about a 3-1 beginning. It's the second-best start a team can imagine. One-fourth of the way into a season and the Bucs already have won as many games as they did all of last year (and frankly, more than some people thought they would win this year). They have looked young, hungry and undaunted by their own inexperience.
Still, there is much to prove. There are questions to answer and situations to handle before all of their followers buy in. It is one thing for a team to be better, and it is another for a team to become one of the NFL's better teams.
"We have a lot to prove," linebacker Barrett Ruud said. "We have everything to prove. We've only won three games. There are 12 more to go. The best teams are at their best in November and December. We have to keep improving so we can do that."
When it comes to the Bucs, you get the feeling their fans want to believe, that they need to believe, that they are just dying to believe. But not quite. Not completely. Not yet.
There have been too many 3-1 starts in NFL history that have been an illusion. Remember 1992, when Sam Wyche's team started 3-1 and ended up 5-11? Two years earlier, Ray Perkins started out 3-1 and was fired before the end of the 6-10 season. In other words, early glitter often turns out to be fool's gold.
In many ways, that is why today's game against the Saints is so important. Win this one and it will be hard to argue the Bucs are not for real. Win this one and Raheem Morris' 10-game goal looks like his expectations might have been too low, too.
So what have they answered and what questions remain? Let's go back to the biggest pre-season questions and review:
Will the Bucs be better?
Verdict: Answered. After four weeks, the Bucs look like the most improved team in the NFL. Twice, they have come from behind. Twice, they have won on the road. Just as important, there is a vibe to the Bucs that says they are a talented young team on the rise, rather than the franchise that seemed to be wandering a year ago.
How is the team going to put pressure on the opposing quarterback?
Verdict: Unanswered. This question seems kind of important today with Drew Brees on the offensive side of the line. Give Brees time and he'll make a secondary look lost. But how in the world are the Bucs going to get the pressure? They're last in the league in sacks. Say what you will about pressures, but sacks are better.
Will quarterback Josh Freeman be a better quarterback in Year 2?
Verdict: Answered. Freeman with the game in his hands has become a nice sight for Bucs fans. He still hasn't reached his potential, but no one is grumbling about his draft position any more. He's big enough, talented enough and driven enough. Why shouldn't he be special?
Can this team slow down opposing teams from running the ball?
Verdict: Unanswered. Last year, the Bucs were 32nd at stopping the rush in the NFL. This year, after drafting defensive linemen Gerald McCoy and Brian Price with their top two picks, they're all the way up to … 30th. That isn't good enough for the winning to continue. Three weeks ago, Pittsburgh's Rashard Mendenhall rushed for 143 yards. Last week, Cincinnati's Cedric Benson ran for 144. Given the Saints' injuries at running back, the Bucs should fare better this week. Still, Tampa Bay needs to tighten up or a winning season will run away.
Can the Bucs' secondary hold up without a great pass rush?
Verdict: Answered. Even without Tanard Jackson, the Bucs have intercepted nine passes, and opposing quarterbacks have a rating of 65.1.
Can the Bucs' running game be any better?
Verdict: Unanswered. The Bucs still aren't very good running the ball. They're 18th in the NFL in rushing, but Cadillac Williams has looked like a player with a tenuous hold on the position. In the passing lane: LeGarrette Blount and Kareem Huggins.
Who in the world is going to catch passes for this team?
Verdict: Answered. Rookie Mike Williams has been a star, and rookie Arrelious Benn seems to be finding his way. The receivers haven't been nearly as big a problem as many suspected.
Will Morris grow into the role as a head coach?
Verdict: Answered … so far. It is true that last year there were moments when Morris seemed like a man who was ready to be a defensive coordinator, not a head coach. The Bucs' twin mistakes at hiring coordinators didn't help. This year, however, the Bucs have looked more efficient, and the plan looks better constructed.
Are the Bucs improved enough to play with the big boys?
Verdict: Unanswered. Three wins is three wins, and no one is suggesting that the Bucs give them back. Still, there are bigger tests to come, even with a schedule that includes Seattle and Detroit and San Francisco and Washington and St. Louis. The Bucs have to play better.
Can the Bucs coax the fans back?
Verdict: Unanswered. It's going to take more than three wins to persuade fans to plop down their Visa cards.
The suspicion here, however, is that getting No. 4 today wouldn't hurt.