TAMPA — Welcome to the proving ground.
Bucs training camp begins today.
Hard Knocks and flop sweat.
Work and more work.
The Bucs are competing against recent history.
That history is going on 10 seasons.
The numbers are staggering. There is no way around them. Only three NFL teams are working on longer playoff droughts than the Bucs' last appearance in 2007. Only six teams have gone longer without a postseason win.
The numbers say that it's high time for this team to take this town back.
I've said that before, and that the Bucs should have never lost Tampa Bay in the first place. It has always been a football town — period. Bit of a front-running football town, but if the Bucs show any kind of pulse, this town is all in.
We're at that crossroads. Bucs camp is underway. All roads point to Jameis Winston. But do they lead to the playoffs?
Is this going to be 1997, when the Bucs, after finishing strong in Tony Dungy's first season, took off and made the playoffs for the first time in 15 years, winning a playoff game?
Or is this going to be 2011, when the Bucs, under coach Raheem Morris and GM Mark Dominik, thought they had it knocked after a 10-6 non-playoff season, complete with franchise quarterback Josh Freeman? Yeah, there was that. Went 4-12 in 2011.
What's it going to be this time around?
The Bucs have made moves. They have given Winston weapons to success. But do they have enough to move up and on from last season's 9-7?
I'll believe it when Winston cuts down on his mad, scrambling plays and turnovers. I'll believe it when the offensive line, with a healthy J.R. Sweezy and a new center in Ali Marpet, stands its ground.
I'll believe it when DeSean Jackson goes the whole season without waking up with 40-year-old legs. I'll believe it when rookie tight end O.J. Howard delivers.
I'll believe it when Doug Martin comes back from suspension and stupidity and shows he didn't get lazy when he got his big contract before last season.
I'll believe it when Gerald McCoy backs up his offseason talk about wanting — needing — to be better late in games. I'll believe it when that true edge rusher arrives, and with it this defense, for years to come.
I'll believe it when the Bucs have a kicker they can count on.
Welcome to the proving ground.
This team has some talent, real talent.
It should be better than it was last season.
Then there is the history.
"We haven't been to the playoffs since 2010? When was the last time we went to the playoffs?" Bucs receiver Mike Evans said Thursday. "'07? All right, so 10 years. So hopefully we can break that. So yeah, we have a lot to prove. We're good on paper, but we've got to do it."
Got to do it.
Welcome to where it starts.