Imagine an NFC South team with a young, inexperienced quarterback who wasn't winning games, an upstart defense that couldn't close and a second-year coach on the hot seat after back-to-back losing seasons.
A year later, the Panthers (8-3) own the league's longest current win streak at seven, quarterback Cam Newton is playing lights out, the defense is ranked third in the NFL and Ron Rivera is a candidate for coach of the year.
It's a cautionary tale for the Bucs and their ownership as they evaluate the fate of coach Greg Schiano.
Rivera went 6-10 and 7-9 in his first two seasons and was 2-14 in games decided by seven points or fewer until pulling out close wins against San Francisco, New England and Miami with fourth-quarter comebacks this season.
Schiano was 0-7 in games decided by a field goal or less until three-point wins over Miami and Detroit.
What advice does Rivera have for Schiano?
"Just stay the course," said Rivera, whose team won its final four games last season. "He's had success. He was successful in college; major college football. He's had some success as a coach in the NFL. Now it's just a matter of time.
"Last year, I was in the same situation, and we got on a roll at the end of the year. And now this year, we've gotten on a roll again. It's just so hard to win in this league, and you've got to develop your team first. I think people have to be willing to take the lumps and accept it. I like who Tampa Bay is going to become, and they're on their way. Coach Schiano's doing a great job. It's just … be patient and just stick with it."
Not coincidentally, that's exactly what Schiano has done.
Everybody asks what the major changes have been, and there are only two: going with Mike Glennon at quarterback and — after four games in which he averaged about 45 passes — getting balance on offense by emphasizing the running game.
Beyond that, securing the first win, on Monday Night Football against the Dolphins, was huge. The longer a team chases the first win, the more pressure builds.
"I thought, maybe, we were pressing a little bit," Schiano said. "Everybody collectively kind of just took a breath and just kept going but didn't press. But their persistence, our leadership in that locker room and their persistence, guys not panicking, guys not pointing fingers, just keep working at it and it'll turn."
Externally, with reports of a rigged captain vote, acrimony with quarterback Josh Freeman and three cases of MRSA, the 0-8 start added to the picture of a dysfunctional team and Schiano as a college coach in way over his head.
Internally, Schiano never lost the locker room or the effort from players.
Look, it's still too early to suggest Schiano's job is safe. In five weeks, things can look different. But there is a value in continuity, and the Panthers are proof of it.
"Just keep on pushing. Don't ever give up. Don't listen to the naysayers, and stay away from the dream killers, I like to call it," Bucs defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said.
"We haven't stopped believing. We kept preparing the same every week, and we just persevered. And it all starts with our head coach. He came in every day, worked his butt off. And we fed off him, and we kept on going. And now we're getting some wins."