EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J.
They are better. They are not yet good.
They fight harder. They still lack a knockout punch.
They are good enough to build a two-touchdown lead against the defending world champions. They are not good enough to make it stand.
Such is the bitter and the sweet of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, now two games into the Greg Schiano era. So far, you have seen encouraging signs, and you have seen disappointing moments. You have seen an offense that, at times, is too conservative and a defense that, at times, is too aggressive.
That's the thing about improvement. It doesn't come with the flipping of a switch. The Bucs certainly seem more interested in excellence than they did a year ago, but there are still lessons to learn and improvements to make.
"Obviously," safety Ronde Barber said, "we need to learn to finish better."
They can come from behind. They can fall from ahead.
They are good enough to steal three passes from Eli Manning. And they are capable of surrendering 510 passing yards to him.
They are good enough to annoy the New York Giants. But they are not yet able to leave them in misery.
All things considered, there was probably more good than bad to the Bucs in Sunday's 41-34 loss. After all, absolutely no one seemed to think the Bucs were capable of winning. That said, the Bucs had a two-touchdown lead late in the third quarter. Letting an opportunity like that slip away should be disappointing.
"I'm ticked," defensive tackle Roy Miller said. "We didn't play the way we're capable in the second half."
Yeah, that's an improvement, too. Do you remember the 10-game mud slide that ended last season? After those games, the Bucs would stand glassy-eyed as they described the damage. No one was irked. No one was outraged. No one was particularly surprised.
This time was different. Even Giants coach Tom Coughlin was grumpy about the way things finished. He scolded Schiano afterward for coming after Manning on his final-play kneel down.
"We fight until they tell us the game is over," Schiano said. "There's nothing dirty about it. There's nothing illegal about it. We try to knock (the ball) loose."
Fans love tough guys, of course, so you get the idea that a lot of them will support Schiano in this spat. After all, the Bucs haven't fought to the end nearly often enough in recent years.
On the other hand, does that mean it's okay for other teams to go after Josh Freeman in the future? Just asking here, but when did roughing up a kneeling quarterback ever pay off in victory for the team doing the roughing?
Two games in, and yes, it is obvious that Schiano has changed the culture in his team's locker room. The demands are greater, and the expectations are higher, and the coaching is better. Still, Schiano is new at the NFL. In some ways, maybe he's still learning the ropes.
In the future, perhaps Schiano will not play it so close to the vest with his offense once it gets the lead. If you remember last week's win over Carolina, the Bucs turned invisible on offense in the second half.
This time, it happened again. From the time the Bucs took their first lead at 10-6, they throttled back their play calls. Of the next 12 first downs, they ran the ball 10 times.
In the future, perhaps Schiano will not blitz so recklessly, either. Granted, the Bucs lack great pass rushers on the line, and they have to get creative to muster their pressure. But the great quarterbacks make blitzing look silly.
The Bucs kept going after Manning in the second half, but he barely seemed to notice anything but the man coverage left behind. No interceptions, no pressure, no problems.
On one blitz, Manning hit Victor Cruz for an 80-yard touchdown pass. On another, he hit Hakeem Nicks for 50 yards to set up the winning touchdown. In all, Manning threw for 295 yards in the second half alone.
Here's the question. Should you be happy that the Bucs came close, or disheartened that they let the game slip away? It depends on your viewpoint. The better you think the Bucs are, the more a game like this is going to sting.
So far, they are good enough to make you hope. But are they good enough to make you believe?
Gary Shelton can be heard from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. weekdays on 98.7 The Fan.