Yes, everyone agreed, things were going along swimmingly. The quarterback was efficient, and the running back was brutish, and the wide receiver was feared in the deep.
But, man, was that schedule weak.
The team was winning. The playoffs were coming. The future looked promising.
Still, when you thought about it, who had the team really beaten?
Yep, there for a while, it sure was easy to reserve judgment on those '72 Dolphins, wasn't it? All the way up to perfection.
You want to talk about bad schedules? Talk about that one. The Dolphins won 14 regular-season games that year, and 12 of them were against teams that didn't have a winning record. For crying out loud, nine of them were against teams that won five games or fewer. There for a while, it looked as if the Dolphins were playing a Division II schedule.
Looking back, however, that wasn't quite the point of the season, was it? Looking back, people seem more inclined to remember 17-0.
So here we are, quibbling about schedules again. As it turns out, the present-day Bucs haven't beaten anyone either, which has become the last refuge of the team's critics. It's easy to notice that, seven times out of seven, the Bucs have beaten teams with a losing record. Three times out of three, they've lost to teams with a winning mark.
Because of that, doubts remain and eyebrows are raised and onlookers remain unconvinced. There are those who will not buy into the Bucs' turnaround until they beat an elite team, which, by the way, adds a little intrigue to Sunday's game against the Ravens, who are 7-3 themselves.
Here's the question: How much of the Bucs' 7-3 record is because of improvement and how much of it is because of the schedule?
And, when you remember that the Bucs were 3-13 last year, does it really matter? (What? Are some people concerned the Bucs might be ranked too high in the BCS?)
Yes, it is true the Bucs have beaten some bad teams with some bad quarterbacks. On the other hand, what else are you supposed to do with bad teams except beat them? As Eli Wallach said in The Magnificent Seven, "If God didn't want them sheared, he would not have made them sheep."
For crying out loud, this isn't college football, where a team can win three times as the athletic director makes out the schedule. The Bucs' schedule is a result of cycle and circumstance and the fine fortune of playing the NFC West in a year where nobody's home.
Look, I understand doubt. In some years, I've led the league in it. Even now, I'm as quick as the next guy to suggest the Bucs still have proving and improving in front of them. If the subject is the Super Bowl, there is plenty of room for skepticism. But I've never been one to fret too much about a team's opponents. There are bigger worries.
Still, the talk of a weak schedule seems to be growing louder as the Bucs get better. More people seem to be talking about who the Bucs play than Boise State.
Put it this way: Did you grade last season on the curve because the Bucs had a particularly nasty schedule? Of course not. And, as such, it's hard to diminish their improvement this year because other teams weren't as good as they were expected to be.
Here's the thing: I've covered the NFL long enough to know that no one remembers strength of schedule. They remember how many a team won, and how far it got, and what color the trophies were. After that, everything is footnotes and fine print.
You know who beat up on weaklings? The '74 Steelers didn't beat a team with a winning record for the entire regular season. It didn't matter once they won the Super Bowl. The '85 Bears, the best team I've ever seen, beat 10 opponents who finished .500 or less. The '79 Bucs, the Worst-to-First Bucs, beat eight losing teams in a 10-victory regular season.. The '84 49ers, who finished 15-1, won 11 games against teams that didn't have a winning record. And no one cared. Even the 2002 Bucs won eight games against teams with losing records. So what?
You know who beat up on weaklings? Attila, that's who. And you almost never hear about his strength of schedule.
The point is that good teams have always beaten up on the bad ones. If nothing else, give the Bucs credit for winning in their own weight class. As they say, it beats the alternative.
Look around the league. New England lost to Cleveland. New Orleans lost to Arizona. The Colts lost to the Jaguars. And so on. In the NFL, it's fairly common for a good team to trip over a lesser one. At least the Bucs haven't done that.
Has the schedule helped? You betcha. But that doesn't change how much better the Bucs have become.
Consider this: Even with this schedule, oddsmakers picked the Bucs to win five games. Even with this schedule, the Bucs have been an underdog in seven of their 10 games.
Yes, the Bucs are going to have to beat someone eventually, either to get to the playoffs or once they are there. That's fair enough. Still, there are those who act as if the Bucs have found a shortcut to success. Hey, the Jets have beaten seven teams without a winning record, too. The Bears have beaten six. The Falcons and Packers have five. Other good teams have walked across the shoulders of lesser teams.
Can the Bucs beat the Ravens? We'll see. They lost by a mile to Pittsburgh and a mile to New Orleans and a yard to Atlanta. Still, the Bucs of November are better than the Bucs of October who were better than the Bucs of December.
Win this one, and it's going to be hard not to take the Bucs seriously.
Win this one, and you can argue over how tough the playoff schedule might be.