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Gary Shelton: Tampa Bay Buccaneers will try to fend off regression

TAMPA

At the time, everything looked shiny for the young Tampa Bay Bucs. They were getting better every day. Who could wait for tomorrow?

The team was talented, young, hungry. The quarterback looked like someone to believe in. The running back had been sensational as a rookie. The wide receiver seemed to have a nice future. The team had a knack for winning close games, which led to a surprising turnaround season.

Yep. There for about five minutes, the Bucs had the look of a team speeding up the mountain.

Next thing you know, they had driven off of a cliff.

Perhaps you remember. It was 2005, and the Bucs fooled us into thinking they owned the future. The triplets of the day — Chris Simms, Cadillac Williams and Michael Clayton — briefly looked like something to build an offense around. The Bucs went from five wins to 11.

There for a while, it was easy to wonder what could go wrong.

Looking back, all you probably remember of the 2006 season was the greasy spot where the team landed.

That year, the Bucs followed up their turnaround by turning right back around. The team backslid into a four-win season. Neither Simms, Williams nor Clayton was ever the same again.

It happens. Teams progress, and teams regress. As fast as failure can turn to success, it can turn back again. The history of the NFL is filled with fleeting successes and cautionary tales.

All of which leads us to this question:

Now that the Bucs are good again, can they manage to stay that way?

The schedule is tougher. Expectations are higher. The division is murder. Prime-time games are ahead. The team is still young. And as good as the 2010 season was, some onlookers don't seem quite convinced that it wasn't a fluke.

So how does Raheem Morris keep his team moving upward?

"It's all based on attitude," Morris said. "The attitude of the locker room, the organization, the management, the consistent attitude of wanting to win and wanting to be great is going to separate us from the teams that go back to losing.

"My high school coach once told me, 'Don't let this be your greatest moment.' I won't let 10-6 be our greatest moment."

In the NFL, excellence is a hard thing to maintain, however. The Bucs know this as well as anyone. Back in 1979, the Bucs went from five wins to 10 … and the next year, back to five. In '97, the Bucs went from six wins to 10 … and the next year, back to eight.

It isn't just the Bucs. In 2008, the Dolphins went from one win to 11 … and the next year, back to seven. In 2006, the Ravens went from six wins to 13 … and then back down to five. The same year, the Saints went from three wins to 10, then back down to seven.

That's the nature of the NFL. With the right schedule, with a few breaks, even a bad team can squeeze out a good season every now and then. It is only when a team puts several seasons together that it proves itself.

Perhaps that is why there are so many meager forecasts for this one. The over-under for the Bucs is eight (down from 8 ½, which means more people have been betting against the Bucs). Most predictions still have the team in third place in its division. Few seem to think the Bucs will make it to the playoffs.

"Some fans probably think we'll win the Super Bowl," tackle Gerald McCoy said. "But some think last year was a fluke and that we're going to miss the playoffs."

McCoy shrugged. It doesn't matter, he said.

"You have to forget last year. Our goal isn't to win 10 games anymore. It's to win the division."

So why do teams backslide? Injuries, sometimes. Schedule, sometimes. Reality, sometimes.

Also, there is this: quarterback.

When the Ravens went from 13 wins in 2006 to five the next year, their quarterback was Kyle Boller. When the Jets went from 10 wins in '06 to four, their quarterback was Chad Pennington. When Chicago went from 13 wins in 2001 to four the year after, their quarterback was Jim Miller. It isn't always the quarterback (Joe Montana and Drew Brees had ordinary seasons, too), but it's a good place to start.

Will the Bucs backslide this year? Depends on Josh Freeman. If he can be good again (even if he doesn't have a 25-6 touchdown-to-interception ratio), then the Bucs can be.

Yes, there are other factors. The team has to maintain focus. It has to stay healthy. Young players, especially on the defensive line, have to develop in a hurry. Sometimes, success is harder to deal with than failure.

That said, Freeman is better than Simms, and Mike Williams is better than Clayton, and LeGarrette Blount is better than Cadillac Williams. The plan is better. The foundation is stronger. Morris will tell you his expectations don't include a regression of any sort.

Can these Bucs succeed again?

We'll see. This time, they have a chance.

Gary Shelton: Tampa Bay Buccaneers will try to fend off regression 08/08/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 9, 2011 11:19am]
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