LAKE BUENA VISTA — Denver cornerback Aqib Talib was running through the names of former Bucs teammates he has been reunited with at the Pro Bowl this week when two of them — Tampa Bay defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and Seattle defensive end Michael Bennett — playfully jumped in on the interview.
"Y'all ruined that. I'm going to say it. Y'all messed that up," said McCoy, leaning into the microphone.
"How do you mess that up?" Bennett asked.
The 2016 Bucs have two players in the Pro Bowl, McCoy and receiver Mike Evans, but the 2012 Bucs have five, four now with other teams. The nostalgia of a reunion in Central Florida has them wondering what might have been.
"It's crazy, man. You think about all the talent we had on that team," said Talib, who has been to four straight Pro Bowls (one with the Patriots, three with the Broncos) after not going once with the Bucs. "It was ridiculous. You can just imagine if we had all stayed on that team."
The only 2012 team with more current Pro Bowl players than the Bucs is the Bengals with six; five are still in Cincinnati uniforms. There are five each from the 2012 Patriots and the Steelers, but four of each are still with the same team. The Bucs are all over the league, however.
"We all talk all the time, and we all reminisce," said Talib. "Look at all those guys we had. We would have been crazy."
How did so much talent get away from Tampa? A variety of reasons contributed as Tampa Bay went through multiple coaches and general managers. Talib's off-field problems — including two separate suspensions by the league, the last for violating its performance-enhancing drugs policy — prompted his trade to the Patriots midway through 2012. Bennett wasn't re-signed the next offseason as the Bucs cleared a path for 2011 second-round draft pick Da'Quan Bowers, who never matched his college success and is out of the league.
Those five players from the 2012 Bucs had just one Pro Bowl combined entering that season, but they've combined for 12 in the past four years.
"I think they did things so prematurely to get rid of so many great players," Bennett said. "It's crazy because we could have been great. We just needed time to develop, a chance to grow together. We were on our way already."
Offensive linemen Donald Penn, now with the Raiders, was named this season to his second Pro Bowl but isn't playing due to an injury. Center Jeremy Zuttah, now with the Ravens, made his first Pro Bowl as a replacement. Both players left the Bucs under current general manager Jason Licht in spring 2014 as the team sought to revamp its offensive line.
Their replacements didn't fare well: Tackle Anthony Collins struggled in his only season with the Bucs and hasn't played in the league since. Center Evan Smith started in 2014 but has largely been a backup the past two years.
The former players have all enjoyed success elsewhere. Penn made the playoffs this season, and Zuttah did in 2014, his first year in Baltimore. Talib won a Super Bowl with Denver last season, as Bennett did with Seattle in the 2013 season.
They all pulled for their old team this season as the Bucs improved to 9-7 but just missed a spot in the playoffs.
"Just to see all the guys that, as a younger player, you came up with, they're having great success, and you have to be happy for them," Zuttah said. "I was rooting for (Tampa Bay) those last couple of games. One more and they might have gotten in. Gerald has worked so hard, and you want to see him go to the playoffs, too."
Bennett said that for all the success he has had with Seattle, he would've liked to have seen what those 2012 Bucs could've done together, given the chance. As the Bucs start to find success, the former players say they will pull for old teammates such as McCoy.
"I love when I see the old guys having success and getting checks," Talib said. "It definitely puts a smile on my face."