They are a good football team. Sometimes.
There are days when you can catch them in just the right light and you can see a contender. In those moments, when the quarterback is precise and the run defense is vicious and the running game is churning, they look like a promising team on the brink of delivery.
Alas, you cannot count on those moments.
They are a bad football team. Sometimes.
There are moments when you have to look away, else you see a wayward team moving in the wrong direction. At such times, when the penalties are mounting and the turnovers keep happening and the defense has forgotten how to tackle, they look like an undisciplined, plodding bunch that is moving in the wrong direction.
Fortunately, you cannot count on that team, either.
They are the Tampa Bay Bucs, and they are harder to figure out than politics.
They are talented enough to beat New Orleans, and they are terrible enough to get run out of the stadium by San Francisco. They are strong enough to hold Atlanta's Michael Turner to 20 yards rushing and weak enough to give up 145 to Chicago's Matt Forte. They can make Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan look ordinary, and they can make San Francisco's Alex Smith look like a star.
Whatever you think of them, they will soon change your mind. They are contrarians who defy identification. At the exact moment you start to think they are good, they will make you reconsider. And as soon as you conclude they are bad, they will argue against that, too.
They are the Bucs.
They lead the league in split personalities.
"It's the old Rod Marinelli line," said coach Raheem Morris, referencing the former Bucs defensive line coach. "It's hard to repeat what you do well. It's easy to go out one week and play hard and play fast and play smart. But to repeat it week after week is what makes football hard, what makes football great."
In the NFL, nothing is harder than consistent success. Ask the Saints, who scored 62 points one week and lost to the previously winless Rams the next. Ask New England, which lost to Buffalo, or the Jets, who lost to Oakland, or San Diego, which lost to a Kansas City team it beat earlier in the year.
In a confusing league, however, no one has been more baffling than the Bucs. They are equal parts faith and doubt, skill and sloth, progression and regression. They are the reason fans are crying for more games on television and the reason that once they are, remote controls end up shattering against the wall.
As the season nears its halfway point, isn't it time to figure out who they really are?
For crying out loud, would the Bucs please identify themselves?
Today's game would be a fine time for that, don't you think? If the Bucs can beat the Saints for the second time this season, it would be hard to argue against the notion of them as a contender. If they do not, they are just another 4-4 team that should change their jerseys to resemble a Rubik's Cube.
On the other hand, these are the Bucs.
Over the years, they have always been fairly easy to figure. In the bad years, you could always see trouble coming. In the good years, they didn't sneak up on anyone. You always knew who the Bucs were.
Four steps forward, three steps back.
"I have thought we were a good team from Day 1," Morris said. "Otherwise, I wouldn't have set our goal at winning the division. We aren't a finished product, by any means. But you want to get that thing going and finish strong at the end."
As the season nears its halfway point, the chief concern of the Bucs ought to be this: What, exactly, does this team do well?
It isn't particular fast, and it isn't particularly disciplined, and it isn't particularly nasty. It isn't safe with the ball, and it isn't a great defense, and it isn't a dangerous offense. No one denies the Bucs have young talent, but Josh Freeman has struggled to protect the ball, and Mike Williams has disappeared and the running game seems to show up every other week. There are too many penalties, too many sloppy plays, too many slow starts.
Remember the movie Twins? That's the Bucs. Some of the time, they are Arnold Schwarzenegger. Some of the time, they are Danny DeVito.
Who are they going to be today?