TAMPA — Bless his heart, the head coach is still aiming high.
He is not yet discouraged by all the losses, yellow flags and missed opportunities of the past month, and Raheem Morris still believes a 10-win season is possible.
I, on the other hand, am looking for something far less ambitious, although you may still consider it fantasy. What I want to see in the season's final six weeks is proof.
Proof that the purge of 2009 was not made in vain.
Proof that recent drafts have not been overestimated.
Proof that the Bucs are traveling in a direction and not in circles.
Because we are just weeks away from the three-year anniversary of a regime change at One Buc Place, and by now you would expect to see the early stages of a new identity.
And while it's true the Bucs have grown younger and less expensive, you could debate how talented and cohesive the roster has become.
In Jon Gruden's final season, the offense was mediocre and the defense was among the NFL's top 10. Three years later, the offense dreams of mediocre and the defense is awful.
So was the dismissal of Gruden a mistake?
No, a roster overhaul was necessary. The team was like a patchwork quilt every season, and there was no sign Gruden was willing to suffer through a rebuilding effort.
So does that mean the promotions of Morris and general manager Mark Dominik were mistakes?
That is tougher to answer. A year ago, Morris and Dominik looked like geniuses. But we now know 2010 was even more of a mirage of fortuitous scheduling and close victories than a lot of us suspected. The roster was not nearly as far along as it seemed.
All of which makes these next six weeks somewhat intriguing, even if the standings are no longer worth studying.
Almost three years later, just how good is this team?
"I've been saying the whole time that we are not a finished product by any means. We all know that," Morris said Monday. "We're young. We play fast, we play hard, we play smart, we play consistent. We certainly could go out there and win a championship. We certainly feel that way. But this is a very talented football league. Very talented teams.
"We can compete with anybody. We've shown that numerous times, playing against the Saints, against Atlanta, against Green Bay. We can compete with anybody. And that's all that matters in this league because the pool of talent is really so tight."
In this case, the coach is seeing what he wants to see. Or maybe he just doesn't want to say out loud what he really sees because it will do his players no good.
Either way, the Bucs are not really a team that can compete with anybody. Sure, they have their good days. And they've had a small handful of impressive victories.
But their record against the NFL's upper echelon is actually woeful. Over the past two seasons, they are 3-11 against winning teams and 11-1 against losing teams. That is not a small sample size, and the numbers are not so close that they are negligible.
What that basically says is the Bucs have been the ultimate dividing line between good and bad in the NFL since 2010.
Now that doesn't mean heads should be rolling. Three years is a long time, but it's hard to build a Super Bowl contender from scratch, and that's basically where the Bucs were starting from in 2009.
On the other hand, a direction should be clearly established by the end of three years and I'm not sure the Bucs are there yet.
They've put a heavy investment in the defensive line, and it does have promise. But they've missed wildly on linebackers, and their secondary is nothing to brag about.
Josh Freeman is a quarterback worth building around, but are you completely sold on the other skill players? Do you even know what Tampa Bay's identity is on offense?
I applaud the philosophy of building through the draft. And I understand the concept of giving younger players playing time instead of bringing in retreads.
But I think mistakes have been made. For instance, I think the Bucs have erred by not having a veteran to teach the young receivers how to practice and how to put in time in the video room. Ditto on the defensive line.
I think the Bucs have zero accountability because everyone in the organization — from the top on down — seems to act as if they're above criticism when, in reality, this franchise hasn't won a playoff game in a decade.
So for the next six weeks, I'm looking for proof.
Proof that the offense is better than 25th in the NFL in points scored. Proof that the defense is better than 29th in the league in points allowed.
Proof that the future is as bright as we once hoped.
John Romano can be reached at [email protected]