TAMPA — The kid was lost. The search parties could not find him.
He was only going 7-8 yards, and still, it did not matter. It didn't matter how hard he looked, and it didn't matter how many times he asked for directions. Try as he might, Gerald McCoy could not find his way.
Week after week, McCoy looked like a man trying to read a map as he traveled. He seemed confused. He seemed disoriented. He seemed like a tourist trying to navigate by staring at street signs written in a foreign language.
And now, finally, McCoy looks as if he is on course at last.
Turns out, the guy may make it to success after all.
Suddenly, on the back end of a season, McCoy has shown up on the backside of an opposing quarterback. These days, you cannot help but notice his explosion off the ball, and his presence in an opposing backfield, and his importance to a defense as the stretch run approaches. Suddenly, you can see what the Bucs saw in McCoy when they selected him as the third overall pick in April's draft.
Three sacks in two weeks and, yeah, that's the guy the Bucs drafted.
A few bursts into the opposing backfield, and yeah, all the suspicions that McCoy might be a bust have been silenced.
"The first time I sacked a quarterback, it was back home again,'' McCoy said, "I was out in space for a little bit. ... But when it finally came to me, I felt like I was back on earth.
"This is me right here. It felt good, man. Not only because a weight was being lifted, but because I was helping the team. My teammates were telling me 'Get another one' or 'Get in his face gain.' Everyone was excited. When you make a play, it helps everyone else.''
McCoy grins, and his face looks about six years younger than his 295-pound frame. And maybe that was part of the weight, too. It is a grown-man's position, defensive tackle, and it usually takes time to get used to the nastiness.
Ah, but when a guy is drafted as high as McCoy, and paid as much, and when he is surrounded by projects and waiver-wire pickups, fans don't want to hear about patience. There were those who labeled McCoy a disappointment in August and a bust in September. It was too soon to make such a judgment, of course, but there is no timetable to criticism. Besides, McCoy was underachieving.
"He was afraid to screw up,'' defensive line coach Todd Wash said. "That can be a good thing, or it can be a bad thing. It bothers him when he messes up. He had a lot of hesitancy.''
"Now, he's twice as disruptive as he was. He's playing in the other team's backfield, and when he does that, it makes us better as a defense.''
With McCoy, that was always the point. He was going to be the anchor on a revitalized defense. He was going to be a force. By golly, he was going to be a Sapp.
And when he wasn't, he was going to spend a lot of dejected evenings.
"I never doubted myself, but it's human nature to be down on yourself,'' McCoy, 22, said. "There was a time, yeah, when I was down on myself. I was frustrated. Sometimes, I could turn into a zombie around here. Other times, I'd be at home upset.
"People ask me what I'm afraid of. I have a fear of failure. I see those lists on TV of the top busts in the NFL. I never wanted to be on one of those lists.''
Yes, McCoy heard the chatter. Every time something was written, every time something was said on TV, he would get a text or a tweet. The Bucs were struggling on defense, and the Bucs were struggling to stop the run. Lions' rookie Ndamukong Suh was ripping up offensive linemen across the league, and McCoy was sackless in his first nine games.
"I would never read it or hear it, but I would know about it,'' McCoy said. "The world is controversial. I didn't take it personally.''
For the last month, however, McCoy has been a different player. And the truth is, his rookie numbers aren't that bad. He's third in sacks for rookie defensive tackles, second in quarterback knockdowns.
Given McCoy's youth, given the difficulty of playing defensive tackle, given the creative ways offensive linemen can use their hands, perhaps we should have seen this coming After all, Brad Culpepper did. Culpepper, the former Bucs' defensive tackle, warned everyone in the preseason.
"He's going to take his lumps,'' Culpepper said. "He's going to struggle most of the year. He doesn't know what he doesn't know.''
These days, Culpepper is encouraged by what he has seen.
"He's been better,'' Culpepper said. "He's starting to get confident. He's had some success with penetration, and he's starting to get some numbers.''
Let's be honest. If you watched No. 93 in the first month of the season, and then you watched him again over the last month, you'd swear someone had swapped jerseys. McCoy seems quicker, stronger, more confident, more fluid. He doesn't look as if he's trying to read graffiti on a wall anymore; he looks as if he's trying to knock it down.
"I think this is just the beginning,'' McCoy said. "I honestly feel like there's a lot more to come. I have a lot more work to do. It's like a guy who can run and catch a ball. Once he gets his first touchdown, he's going to want another touchdown, and then another one. It's the same way with sacks. It fuels his fire.''
No, McCoy is not there yet. Yes, he is still learning on the job. There are a hundred guards to beat and a hundred quarterbacks to sack and a thousand plays to make before he can be called a success.
Finally, he is pointed in the right direction. Finally, he is moving toward the backfield.
Finally, McCoy is on his way.