Did you think they were cured?
Sometime during the first win of the season, or their second, or even their third, did you fool yourself into thinking the Bucs had ripened into a good football team? Did you think they had steadied the ship and from now on there was going to be nothing but clear sailing?
The mediocre Bucs, or maybe even something less than that, returned to the football field in Sunday's 27-6 loss to the Panthers. They sputtered, and they spewed, and they avoided the end zone with great stubbornness. In all, they reminded you a great deal of the team that started the season 0-8.
This defeat was as routine as doing laundry. That was the disheartening thing. The Bucs didn't leave the football all over the field, and they didn't have a ridiculous number of breakdowns. They just were handled by a better team. For most of the day, it was like watching the varsity against the JV.
This was the somber lesson for the Bucs: Yeah, that's what a contender looks like.
The Carolina quarterback was better than Tampa Bay's. The Carolina defensive front was better. The Carolina offensive line was better. The Carolina receivers were better. And on and on.
In other words, this is the kind of team the Bucs have to become if they intend to compete for next year's NFC South title, or the one the year after that. They have to get tougher. They have to become more dynamic. It would help if they could visit the end zone a time or two.
New Orleans? Yeah, you can say the same about the Saints, but the Bucs barely lost to the Saints this year. Atlanta? The Bucs split with Atlanta this year.
The Panthers, on the other hand, have owned the Bucs. They have won two games by 39 points, and if they hadn't taken their foot off of the gas Sunday, it could have been worse.
Hard to believe, isn't it, that the Bucs beat this team twice a year ago.
"It's easy for me to say no," said Bucs coach Greg Schiano. "I don't think the gap is that wide. But there are two games of proof. We didn't play well."
That's the thing about Schiano. Even after a three-touchdown drubbing, he couldn't bring himself to say Carolina is simply the better team. Even Sunday evening, he talked about how his team didn't tackle, how his rookie quarterback looked more like a rookie than he has, how his team couldn't run the ball. He blamed the coaches. He blamed the execution.
At no point, however, did Schiano say Carolina was better, even though it clearly was. Maybe that's because, if the other team is clearly better, then coaching can have little to do with the outcome.
"This is a top-to-bottom loss," Schiano said, "beginning with me."
Actually, it probably began with Carolina's defensive front, which smothered the Bucs running game. Bobby Rainey ended up with 63 yards, but on seven of his first nine carries, he was held to 2 yards or fewer.
That transferred the pressure to quarterback Mike Glennon, who struggled. He was sacked five times, and he has had only two starts where his rating was lower. His favorite receivers — Vincent Jackson and Tiquan Underwood — were invisible in the second half with two catches for 15 yards (both by Jackson).
And Cam Newton? He was putting on a show. He had a 56-yard run, and he threw for two touchdowns, and he took flight for a third, diving over the Bucs defense just before halftime.
Schiano didn't have a cure for that. He didn't have a way around that defensive front. If that makes you want to put the contract extension papers back into the owner's desk, that's fair. Schiano admitted the coaching wasn't what it should have been.
"I just didn't feel like we gave them enough good opportunities," he said of the coaching staff. "I look at some of this stuff, it's on me.
"We've got to figure out a way to put them in better situations. It's easy to say play-calling. When plays work, they're great, and when they don't, they're not. I just mean, overall, why do we show up today and not perform the way we're capable of?"
I don't know. Maybe it has to do with not scoring a touchdown. Maybe it has something to do with going 1-for-10 on third down. Maybe it has something to do with Carolina's offense keeping the ball more than eight minutes longer than the Bucs.
Maybe, just maybe, the Bucs' winning streak was bound to end sometime.
Maybe, just maybe, Carolina is simply better.