They lose. This is who they are, and this is what they know.
They lose. It does not matter which backup quarterback has been pulled out of storage, and it does not matter what running back is left standing. It does not matter that the other team is having a stinker of a season itself. It does not even matter that, for most of the afternoon, they appear to be the better team on the field.
They lose because, for the life of them, they do not know how to win.
Such is the plight of the Tampa Bay Bucs, who are 1-11 and still haven't figured out why defeat keeps happening. You can blame the quarterback, and you can blame the coach, and you can blame the offensive tackle who makes it rain penalty flags. You can blame the offense, and you can blame the defense, and you can blame the special teams. If it helps, you can blame society.
Still, they lose.
They lose because, down deep, they know no other way.
The truest thing ever said about the NFL is this: A large part of winning is the knowledge of knowing how to do so. It means willing the big plays. It means making the little plays. Often, it means avoiding the really stupid plays.
All of which leads us to the Bucs. Twelve tests into the school year, and they have flunked 11 of them. Clearly, they could not find an answer with a treasure map and a team of bloodhounds.
It was never more clear than Sunday, when the Bucs marched across every blade of grass in Bank of America Stadium except those in the end zone. They ran the ball well. They passed the ball well. And except for a first quarter filled with pratfalls, they played enough defense.
Still, they lost.
What else did you expect?
Time was, the Bucs always found a way to win games like this. They might stumble around for a quarter, and they'd miss a chance to step on an opponent's neck. But in the good days, the Bucs always seemed to have a knack for winning and then for shrugging when you suggested it looked a bit ugly.
No more. These days, when it gets to an important down, the Bucs seem to look for a way to stub their collective toe. And usually, they find it. They stumble. They stagger. They fall.
Sunday, for instance, they found themselves inside the Panthers 28-yard line on eight occasions, and as a souvenir, they brought home two field goals. Three times, they drove inside the Panthers 4 and scored only three points. Yippee.
Josh Freeman threw to the wrong-colored jerseys so many times you wanted to give him a Vinny Testaverde eye test to see if he was color-blind. Jeremy Trueblood, who must be closing in on a thousand-yard season by now, had another ridiculous penalty. And someone couldn't figure out that the 3-yard line wasn't the best time for Chris Pressley's first career carry.
They gained 469 yards, and they lost. They had nine plays of 20 yards or more, and they lost. They held the Panthers to only 41 yards rushing over the final three quarters, and they lost.
It sounds familiar, but it is true. Good teams make the plays at crunch times. Bad teams don't. Good teams know how to win a close game. Bad teams do not.
"You start losing and start getting used to losing," fullback Earnest Graham said. "You start to lose confidence and you find a way to lose because you're used to it. It's the same thing with winning. There is a rhythm to winning, and there is a rhythm to losing."
Four of the past five weeks, the Bucs had a shot at winning. Against Miami, Atlanta and Carolina — all playing with backup quarterbacks — they could not.
"I think (learning to win) is a good part of it," center Jeff Faine said. "I was speaking a little earlier this week of how a franchise, an organization, has a culture to it. A DNA in a way, where everyone from the top to the bottom has the same DNA. That's something we're trying to develop. We're not there yet. It's something we have to keep moving forward.
"Good teams have that ability to overcome mistakes. At crunch time, they make plays. We're dealing with a lot of youthful mistakes. Sometimes, you have to learn."
They are learning together. After all, coach Raheem Morris has one victory in his life. Freeman didn't win a lot in college. As for the rest of the players, well, no one has won lately.
"That's what we're learning to do," receiver Antonio Bryant said. "That's part of getting over the hump. To be honest, last year we pulled off these tough games. We had a different kind of leadership. We're looking for guys to step up and make plays."
Said Cadillac Williams: "We need men to step up and be men. When it's crunch time, we're not making the plays. We jump offsides or have someone miss a block or miss a tackle or let someone behind him. We can't keep blaming that on youth. We've played 12 games now."
How does a team learn how to win? It starts by winning. It starts with leadership. It starts with a blueprint from a coach who guides his team there.
Rumor has it, it starts somewhere on the other side of the goal line.