If the 2012 Greg Schiano Bucs played the 2011 Raheem Morris Bucs, who would win?
This year's Bucs, and it wouldn't even be close.
The 2012 Bucs are more talented and experienced than last year's. Quarterback Josh Freeman is better. He has more and better weapons. The defense can stuff the run and has a few budding stars.
The Bucs are 2-4 but easily could be 4-2 or 5-1 right now. Heck, they even could be undefeated if a few balls (or officials' whistles) had gone this way or that.
Know what all this means?
Nothing. Not a doggone thing.
In today's NFL, all that matters is the scoreboard. Did you win, or did you lose? Are you going to the playoffs, or are you going home? They don't save postseason spots for teams that try really hard and keep games close. They don't hand out trophies just because you're better than you were last year.
Even Schiano knows that.
"Look,'' he said, "at the end of the day, it's either a win or a loss.''
That's why no one — not the fans, not the players, not the coaches, not anyone in the organization — should be happy about just hanging around in every game. Not only could the Bucs be 4-2 or 5-1 right now, they should be 4-2 or 5-1 right now.
Here's why the Bucs should be pounding their fists on a table instead of pumping them in the air. Here's why there is no silver lining in their 2-4 start.
Each game was ripe for the taking
The Bucs have lost four games by a combined 22 points — seven, six, two and seven points. Those losses came against the Giants, Cowboys, Redskins and Saints, and at first glance, you would think that's impressive. But here's the thing: The combined record of those teams is 13-13, and that includes the Giants and their 5-2 record. Those teams are 9-13 against teams other than the Bucs.
The Redskins are rebuilding. The Cowboys are down, and so are the Saints, who came to town Sunday with a third-string head coach and one of the worst pass defenses in football. Let's face it, the Saints aren't that good.
And yet the Bucs blew a 14-point lead against the Saints. They blew a 14-point lead against the Giants, too. They had a seven-point lead against the Cowboys and led the Redskins with less than two minutes left.
To lose any one of those games would be a punch to the gut. To lose all four is hard to comprehend. It leads you to believe the issue is more about coaching and the inability to close than just coming up on the short end of a back-and-forth game.
The coaching hasn't been up to snuff
It's unreasonable to think Schiano and a staff put together at the last minute could immediately coach up a team like they're Bill Belichick and company. A year ago, Schiano was at Rutgers and couldn't be expected to tell you the difference between Doug Martin and Dean Martin. He does get a bit of a learning curve.
But either this staff is stubborn or slow to adjust. Or both.
Consider how long it took for these coaches to let Freeman wing the ball down the field (with great success, by the way). Consider how long it took them to figure out Martin is better running off the edge than up the gut. Consider how the defensive line pressured the coaches into knocking off those goofy stunts and allowing it to run north and south.
Consider how the coaches kept blitzing the Giants' Eli Manning over and over as he torched the Bucs for more than 500 yards. Consider how they insisted on running LeGarrette Blount three times up the middle Sunday from inside the 2 even though Blount has never been a good goal-line back. Consider how they still don't have a clue how to stop a decent passing attack. "Our Achilles heel,'' Schiano called it.
And consider how Schiano has been like a bull at a cocktail party, insisting his kneel-down and field-goal antics are the way to play no matter what other coaches or officials say. Perhaps he could have spent more time working on his goal-line offense than practicing some peewee field-goal stunt the NFL says is illegal. At least then the Bucs might be 3-3.
Close is good, just not good enough
Look, is there something to be said for improvement? Of course. Schiano took over a team that lost 10 straight games to end last season and has it playing competitively. He does appear to have changed the culture.
Maybe you can't go from one of the worst teams in the league to being a contender without taking baby steps. But that doesn't mean you should be satisfied with those baby steps.
"I had no idea how this group of guys would react once we got under the fire of the game,'' Schiano said. "I see where we are now. I like this team. I like the guys. They're trying their guts out. As a coaching staff, we have to get better, and as a team we have to get better.''
He's right. They do have to get better. They're on pace to win about six games. You can't be satisfied with that, especially after writing more than $140 million worth of checks to improve the team in the offseason. Are they better than last year's Bucs? Yeah. Too bad last season's Bucs aren't on the schedule.