TAMPA — When Tony Dungy took over as coach for the 1996 season, the Bucs had suffered through 13 straight losing seasons — including 12 in a row with double-digit defeats.
Sure, there were two future Hall of Fame players on the roster, and possibly a third. But Derrick Brooks, Warren Sapp and John Lynch were playing out of position, and their NFL futures were undetermined at best.
"It was just crazy,'' Dungy said. "Once I got here, it seemed like a bigger job than I thought.''
Dungy decided to talk to every veteran player and ask them one question: "Why aren't we winning?"
"You figure you would get one or two reasons and we're going to be okay,'' Dungy said. "And every guy came back with a yellow legal pad. Paul Gruber, who is soft spoken and quiet, he had 10 or 12 things on a legal pad.
"I said, 'Gosh, this is why we don't win, and it was a mentality at that point. As soon as something would go wrong, it was, 'That's it. Here we go again.' That's what was tough to overcome, really.''
Last Sunday, after a 37-32 loss to the Rams in the Bucs' home opener, crestfallen coach Dirk Koetter said, "There's something in our culture. It's my job to fix it.''
So how do you change the culture of a losing franchise?
It's a little like what Ernest Hemingway said about going bankrupt: "Gradually, then suddenly.''
In Dungy's first few meetings with his team, he rarely talked football. The discussion was about being on time, being a good teammate, giving back to the community. Finally, Brooks came to him and said, "Coach, when are we going to talk about how we're going to win football games?' "
But Dungy knew if he didn't teach his team to take care of the details, it had no chance to make a big improvement. The Bucs started 0-5 and were 1-8. "But we just kept pounding,'' Dungy said. "I said, 'We are not changing, we are going to be okay.' It took longer than I thought it would.''
By the end of the 1996 season, the Bucs won five of their last seven to finish 6-10. The next year they started 5-0, earned a playoff spot at 10-6 and beat the Lions in the NFC wild card. Despite reaching the playoffs four times in six years, Dungy couldn't get his team past the NFC Championship Game. It took Jon Gruden to challenge the offense and lead the Bucs to a Super Bowl XXXVII title in the 2002 season.
The culture, however, had been established.
Koetter is right. It's hard to describe that intangible ingredient for winning, but you know it when you see it.
This much is certain: Good organizations win in the NFL. The Patriots, Steelers, Giants and Broncos all have a consistency in approach, even if their schemes vary. It helps to have stability in ownership, and the ownership needs to identify and hire the right people to acquire and develop talent.
Continuity in the coaching staff is a vital ingredient. Since 2008, the Glazer family, which owns the Bucs, has hired Raheem Morris, Greg Schiano, Lovie Smith and Koetter as head coach. That's one every two years. What's more, they have had two general managers, although in reality it's three since Smith had control over all personnel decisions.
With each coaching change, there is at least a 50 percent roster turnover. Smith turned the roster over 75 percent in two years. Since players drafted for one scheme might not be suited for the new one, you render previous NFL drafts a bust and have to begin to supplement with even more risky free agents (Josh McCown, Anthony Collins, Michael Johnson ring a bell?).
Of course, it's a coach/quarterback league and nothing can turn the fortunes of an NFL franchise faster than a franchise quarterback. Jameis Winston appears to have the talent, temperament and tenacity to lead the Bucs from the abyss.
The team devoted two years to the draft acquiring offensive players and last year began to address the defense. But defensive coordinator Mike Smith has a new scheme. Players have to buy in to the system. If there are too many breakdowns, doing fewer things better is usually the answer.
The key places for stability are ownership, coach and quarterback. You can make constant change everywhere else as needed. It helps to have an identity. For the Bucs, it will be Winston.
"Winning is just contagious,'' Winston said. "The more you win, the more people want to win and the more people try to refrain from losing. You can't be out there trying not to lose. You've always got to be aiming for that win."
What would help is if the Glazers would give Koetter — or any coach — more than two years to turn things around. You can't fault them for wanting to win and cutting the cord if they think it's not going to happen. But it's their impatience — or bad decisions — that has prevented a winning culture from developing.
"That's something that for any progress to be made, that's going to be over a much longer period of time than three days,'' Koetter said. "All we can do on something like that — all of us, starting with me — is do the little things right that we're supposed to do on a daily basis. That has to add up to performance on Sunday, me (and) everybody else.
"And you have to build that over time, that's just something that's not going to be different overnight, but it starts, like anything else, it starts with awareness. Awareness of something that we need to work on.
"Do I think our guys are aware of what we need to do? Yes," Koetter said. "Do I think our guys have the right mind-set to attack it? Yes. But time will tell if we're able to pull it off."