TAMPA — They were awful once.
That's hard to be believe. But the sickeningly great, oppressively consistent, occasionally cheating New England Patriots, who play in another Super Bowl on Sunday night, were once one of the most horrible franchises in professional football.
It was a long time ago, way before the Killer B's of all Killer B's: Belichick and Brady.
It was so long ago that most of us don't remember.
But it happened. It happened, and it serves as a reminder to the Bucs and most every other NFL team:
It can be done.
The template the Patriots have laid down to show the way is relatively simple.
Hire the greatest coach this side of Lombardi.
Then hit on your sixth-round draft pick ever so slightly: greatest quarterback ever.
Nothing to it.
Now, it might be true that no history is worse than old Bucs history — 0-26, 12 straight double-digit-loss seasons, Hugh Culverhouse, the Booker Reese draft, the Bo Jackson draft, Vinny is color-blind. Need I go on? The Bucs did reach the mountaintop in the 2002 season but couldn't maintain.
The Patriots have maintained like few teams in history, 16 seasons of it. Remarkable.
But New England has had terrible teams. And it once had terribly small crowds — Bucs-bad attendance — in its old stadium, which was a dump.
It's all true.
The 1981 Patriots went 2-14. The Colts beat them twice, their only two wins that season.
The Patriots were once so comical that even in strike-shortened 1982, a playoff season for the team, they made bad news — the infamous "Snow Plow Game," when Patriots coach Ron Meyer made a snow plow driver, a prisoner on work release, carve a swath in the fluffy stuff so the Pats could boot a field goal in a 3-0 win over Miami. The Tigris and Euphrates of Patriot cheating.
The Patriots were once so bad, so unstable, that once they nearly moved to Connecticut. Once they considered moving to St. Louis.
It's all true.
The Patriots made their first Super Bowl in the 1985 season, only to be annihilated by the Bears. The Patriots made the playoffs only twice in the following 10 seasons.
The Patriots were once so bad they went 1-15 in 1990, the worst record in franchise history. Coach Rod Rust — ah, memories — was fired after one season. The Patriots went 2-14 in 1992. Coach Dick MacPherson was fired.
It began to turn under Bill Parcells, who arrived in 1993. Owner Robert Kraft took over in 1994. Parcells took New England to the Super Bowl in the 1996 season, losing to the Packers. After some ups and downs under Pete Carroll, the Patriots hired Bill Belichick in 2000. He chose Tom Brady in the 2000 draft, sixth round, 199th overall.
And the rest is history,
Only the Patriots could have Spygate and Deflategate and still be the NFL's model franchise.
By the way, the snow plow hangs in the Patriots Hall of Fame.
Every NFL team has dark passages. The Packers went 0-11-1 the year before Vince Lombardi arrived. Tom Landry and Cowboys didn't win a game in 1960, their first season. The Steelers went 1-13 in Chuck Noll's first season as coach. The 49ers went 2-14 in 1979, Bill Walsh's first season as coach.
It's no different with the Patriots.
But every team can look with amazement.
How do you get there?
How do you stay there? And stay there? And stay there?
Maybe there's real hope for wanderers like the Bucs.
The Patriots did it.
A Hall of Fame coach and a Hall of Fame quarterback.
How hard can that be?
Time to do a mock sixth round.
Just remember, kids, the Patriots were awful once.
Really, they were.