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For now, a victory is enough for Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Quarterback Josh Freeman releases a 33-yard touchdown pass to receiver Micheal Spurlock with 6:45 remaining in the fourth quarter to give the Bucs a 17-14 lead, their first of the game.

JAMES BORCHUCK | Times

Quarterback Josh Freeman releases a 33-yard touchdown pass to receiver Micheal Spurlock with 6:45 remaining in the fourth quarter to give the Bucs a 17-14 lead, their first of the game.

TAMPA

The day was hot, and the stands were empty, and for crying out loud, the opponent was Cleveland.

Still, the Bucs won.

They started out slowly, and they were sloppy at the end, and for a while, they gave up enough big plays to encourage flashbacks of the horror of a year ago.

Yet, the Bucs won.

They were not explosive, they were not dominant, and they did not cause opponents across the league to quake in fear.

On the other hand, the Bucs won.

For the time being, that was enough. When a team has lost the way the Bucs have lost lately, when the expectations of the newborn season are so low, when a team is young enough to qualify for a BCS bowl, a victory is a fine place to start. It does not matter if the first half made your eyes bleed or if the final drive made your blood pressure soar. It doesn't even matter that if the Bucs had lost to Cleveland, they might not have sold another ticket until the holiday markdowns.

The Bucs are 1-0.

Feel free to toss confetti if you wish.

That's what winning does in the NFL. It forgives everything else. It allows fans to forget about those here-we-go-again feelings they had when the Bucs fell behind by 11 points. It calms the critics who noticed the Bucs ran it for an inch at a time through three quarters. It instills confidence in a young team that spent most of last year gasping for oxygen.

Who knows? Somewhere along the line, it might make the price of tickets seem more reasonable.

Yes, Sunday's 17-14 victory over Cleveland was a good day for the Bucs. It should be noted that it was also a rather invisible day. Only 41,554 were in the stadium, and with the game blacked out, that means fewer Bucs fans saw their team play than in any game since December 1996.

So what did they miss? They missed a plucky little comeback in the second half. They missed Josh Freeman throwing a winning touchdown pass in the fourth quarter, banged-up thumb and all. They missed the defense finding itself. They missed a day that suggested that maybe, just maybe, the Bucs will be a bit better than the worst of the predictions about their season.

"They missed a gritty team," said Ronde Barber, who made a key interception. "This is a very enthusiastic football team. Even when we were down, man, it didn't feel as if we were in dire straits. This is a team that has a will to win."

"I think they missed a young, hungry team that believes in what its coach preaches," said linebacker Barrett Ruud, who forced a key fumble. "We feed off each other. We didn't play well to start, but no one went in the tank."

True, it was only one game. And no, it wasn't as if the Bucs won in a walk. And no, beating the Browns isn't anything new around the NFL. Lots of teams do it.

On the other hand, it took eight games, three quarterbacks and two continents before the Bucs could win a game last year.

This year, they won their first, and they looked like a team that might win its second before too long. On a team this young, that isn't bad.

"It's huge," Barber said. "There is a culture in everything you do. Losing can be a culture. We don't want that. We have to find a way to make winning our culture.

"That's one thing that comes with a season-opening win. When you're a team that wasn't great last year, something like this can prove we're on the right track. A veteran guy can see that in a loss sometimes, but for a young guy, a win does say we're doing the right things and moving in the right direction."

Let's face it. Sometimes, players doubt, too. Sometimes, losing can drain a player's confidence. Getting an early win, or two, has to help. Doesn't it?

"It means absolutely nothing," coach Raheem Morris said in one of the more bizarre comments of his tenure. "(The media) are the ones who don't believe in us. We believe in ourselves."

Winning the opener means nothing?

"No. It was a great job going out and getting this win, but it means absolutely nothing in this league and what we're looking for in our goals. We have lofty goals. We want to win in the long term."

Oh. Okay, but when a coach has won four times in 17 games, it seems as if there are some things to embrace. For instance, there was Barber showing he still had a knack for the ball when he intercepted a pass and returned it 64 yards on legs that had been baked like a rotisserie chicken from playing in the heat. There was Freeman, throwing a 33-yard touchdown pass despite a right hand that looks as if he is hitching a ride.

Then there was the defense. For the first half, the Bucs gave up a 41-yard pass and a 39-yard run. The Browns ran for 87 yards in the first two quarters. In the second half, however, Cleveland had only 17 yards rushing and only four first downs.

Then there was the running game, where the running backs struggled to get 33 yards in three quarters. In the final quarter, the Bucs had 52.

In other words, you should have seen the fourth quarter. It was worth watching. It was promising. It was even successful.

Who knows? A few more games like this and maybe the scalpers can stop crying.

For now, a victory is enough for Tampa Bay Buccaneers 09/12/10 [Last modified: Monday, September 13, 2010 12:27am]

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