TAMPA — When a professional football team goes on the road, know who typically sits in first class?
The offensive linemen.
Got to take care of the big fellas. Everyone knows that an offense is only as good as its offensive line.
"Critical,'' Bucs tackle Anthony Collins said. "Very critical.''
Collins is spot on. NFL teams might be able to get away with having an okay quarterback or so-so receivers. You don't always need an elite running back or even a good defense.
But go out there with a rotten offensive line and see what happens. The losses pile up.
It's fair to say that no group is more important to a football team than the offensive line.
Now for the bad news: It's also fair to say that there is no group on the Bucs with more questions and more concerns than the offensive line.
Frankly, this has a chance to be a debacle.
Gone are mainstays of the past, road graders such as Donald Penn and Davin Joseph.
Carl Nicks, whose career was ruined by MRSA, is gone, too.
So who's left?
Well, Collins was brought in to play the money spot — left tackle. He seems promising, but this is the first time he has gone into a season as a starter.
The other tackle, Demar Dotson, has a shot at being a good one, and he's the senior leader despite being only 28 years old with 33 career starts.
The Bucs picked up former Packer Evan Dietrich-Smith to play center. The Bucs have high hopes, but again, you're talking about a guy who has not played a ton. Last year was his first full season as a starter.
After that, the Bucs truly don't have a clue as to what they have. They can't even tell you who will play guard. Right or left guard. Don't be surprised if the Bucs sift through the waiver wire to find a starter or two.
And let's not even think about what will happen if the Bucs get an injury or two.
But don't expect any panic from coach Lovie Smith.
"We like the prospects,'' Smith said. "We don't have a lot of players at the positions that have started a lot of games. We have young talent at the line. … These preseason games will be so important for those guys. But we have a group of guys working there. We don't have any starting lineups or anything like that right now. But it will continue to clear up for us on who our guards will be."
Yikes, it's not exactly comforting when the head coach can't give you the names of two-fifths of your starting line this close to real games.
"There's time,'' offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford said. "We've been practicing, but now we're getting to go into our preseason games. And game time is when people need to step up. So we're really anxious to see guys step up in the preseason.''
Know what should make Tedford really nervous? Looking at the schedule and seeing the Panthers and Rams in the first two weeks of the regular season. The monsters up front on those teams can make good offensive lines look like crash-test dummies.
Imagine what the likes of Greg Hardy, Robert Quinn and Chris Long can do to an inexperienced offensive line with little chemistry that still has to get its act together.
"I don't think you have to play together five years to get that chemistry,'' said Smith, who is fully aware of the opening two games on the schedule.
Still, no one would argue against the importance of offensive line play.
Look at the past two seasons.
In 2012, with Penn leading the way, the Bucs offensive line was actually pretty decent. No surprise that they had the ninth-most yards in the NFL.
Last season, with Nicks out, Joseph a shell of himself after a knee injury and Penn having an awful season, the offensive line was a mess. No surprise, either, that the Bucs were last in total yards.
"I wouldn't say it was a coincidence,'' Dotson said.
Yet as bad as last season was, the Bucs don't have near the amount of experience up front going into this season.
"We lost a good core group of guys,'' Dotson said. "They were the rock of this offensive line for years. And when you lose a core of good guys like that, it puts a dent in this offensive line. I don't think we got the same standards that guys like Davin and Penn used to hold us to. We've got to get back to those standards.''
That's what Dotson, Dietrich-Smith and, especially, Collins have to do.
"It starts with us,'' Collins said. "If we have a bad day, the whole offense has a bad day. We put it on us. … We lose a game, it's on us.''
Maybe you're excited about new quarterback Josh McCown and new weapons such as receiver Mike Evans and running back Charles Sims and tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins, but if the offensive line isn't straightened out in the next month, the Bucs are going to have major troubles.
"I know the media are going to think what they want to think and say what they want to say,'' Dotson said, "but I think every guy on this offensive line needs to prove themselves on Sunday.''
Forget Sundays. The Bucs need to start figuring this thing out today.