Let's skip ahead to the final chapter. After all, everything else is just details.
It is late in the evening on Dec. 29, 2013. How are you likely to feel about your Tampa Bay Bucs then?
The regular season is finished, and the playoffs are ahead. The draft is a distant memory. So are the offseason workouts, and the mini-camps, and the training camp. Josh Freeman has completed another season of passes, and Doug Martin another season of runs, and Lavonte David another season of tackles. A thousand toes have been on a thousand lines.
Just asking: What will you think of your Bucs then?
The easy answer: It depends on today.
The Bucs have a chance to get better, a lot better, when free agency begins across the NFL today. They have a chance to plug that awful pass defense, and a chance to improve that terrible pass rush. They have a chance to find a safety, and a chance to find that over-the-middle receiver. They have a chance to find a strongside linebacker, and a chance to find a right tackle. They have a chance to spend some of that nasty money south of the salary cap.
Not to apply pressure or anything, but they also have a chance to be better than that 7-9 season.
That's what free agency, done right, can do for a team. It can fill the holes left bare by a decade's worth of bad drafting. It can allow a team, if it is smart enough and hungry enough, to close the gap in the standings.
As much as any team, the Bucs should know this. Before last season, they seemed to avoid free agency like it was Black Friday. You know, the stores were too busy, and everything was overpriced, and furthermore, the parking was awful. It was the wrong approach, of course. At its simplest, free agency is another way to procure talent.
Then, last year, the Bucs signed Vincent Jackson and Carl Nicks, and just like that, they became a more dangerous football team. (They also signed Eric Wright, but who's counting that but the accountants?) Jackson and Nicks were like surplus No. 1 draft picks. And, as they made those signings, the Bucs acknowledged that the difference makers came at the high side of the free agency class.
Well, hello again. This year, there is more money to spend and more needs to fill.
Can you blame fans for making out a shopping list? Or two?
With the Bucs, any cry for help comes from the secondary. Of course it does. Last year, the Bucs were one medium-range pass away from having the worst pass defense in the history of the game. So, yeah, the Rays could fill up a shopping cart with cornerbacks fairly quickly.
Word is that the Bucs are interested in signing ex-Jags corner Derek Cox, which sounds like a good place to start. But asking Cox to plug the hole in the passing game is like trying to put a wine cork into the Grand Canyon. What else do you have?
Sean Smith? His name has been tossed around. Brent Grimes? His, too. Safety Dashon Goldson?
Personally, I like the idea of the Bucs signing two cornerbacks. It frees up the need for Tampa Bay to draft one with its first pick, for one thing. And again, if you saw the scorch marks on last year's cornerbacks, you can't argue the need isn't there. There were Sundays the pass defense looked like a flash fire.
Then there is the pass rush, which can use a little juice itself. Reportedly, the Bucs are interested in former Falcon John Abraham, which, if the contract is right, isn't a bad thing, either. Abraham certainly has enough left in the tank that you would worry less about Adrian Clayborn's injury, Da'Quan Bowers' arrest and Michael Bennett's impeding departure.
Still, Abraham doesn't seem as if he's in a hurry to get here. He's headed to Seattle and San Francisco first. But when a need is as big as Tampa Bay's, you might figure the sides would chat eventually.
And so it goes: Everywhere there is a problem, free agency offers a solution.
Tight end? Delanie Walker or Dustin Keller. Right tackle? Phil Loadholt or Andre Smith. Outside linebacker? Paul Kruger or Shaun Phillips.
Look, no one should expect the Bucs to sign players willy-nilly. The truth of free agency is that there are always more silly contracts than sane ones. That said, the smarter teams seem to sign the smarter contracts.
Three players? Four?
That doesn't seem like a lot to ask.
For the Bucs, it is time to make a run at the postseason. Last season was the fifth in a row since the team made an appearance. Last season marked 10 straight since a playoff victory.
Today, the Bucs can help to alter that. The Bucs lead the division in cap space, and as such, opportunity to get better. A good haul in free agency, followed by a good draft, and the Bucs can transform from a seven-win team to a 10-win team.
From there, it isn't hard to see the playoffs.
The Bucs just need to start looking today.
Listen to Gary Shelton weekdays from 9 a.m. until noon at 98.7-FM the Fan.