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Team Irrelevant? For that, Bucs are a contender

Once again, the Bucs are staring down another television blackout, which would deny fans a chance to see the sizzle of their offense.

Does it matter?

Once more, they will valiantly try to get a win before October. Which is, as they say, better than November.

Does it matter?

Yet again, the Pewter gang will fire the cannons and toss the beads and, if they get around to it, they will try to visit the end zone.

Does it matter?

When you get to the bottom of it — and, these days, the Bucs are often at the bottom — that may be the most troubling thing of all. For a long time now, the Bucs haven't been a team that mattered, and they haven't played games that mattered, and they haven't finished seasons that matter.

These days, they have become Team Irrelevant, spinning their wheels through the seasons, wanting you to like them but never really working hard at it. In some ways, this is the worst thing that can happen to an NFL team, that there can be long, winding conversations about the league where its name never comes up.

These days, the Bucs are an afterthought, unimpressive in their production, inconsequential in their impact. They are insignificant, just another team having just another season. They are the NFL's version of North Dakota. They are the Bay City Rollers reunion tour. They are the leftovers in the back of your fridge. They'll do, but they're nothing to make you clap your hands in excitement.

When the national writers mention them, it is brief and dismissive. When the highlight shows get around to them, it comes with a shrug and a grin. In Iowa, I suspect, fans have forgotten the Bucs are still in the league.

Oh, there are still passionate fans here. Of course there are. But there are not as many, and their blood does not seem to boil as hot as it once did. Season by season, the Bucs have lost a little of their cache in the neighborhood.

This is not meant to provoke anger. It is meant to express sadness. This team, and this town, had something once that has been lost.

This is what happens when the excellence goes away. Eleven seasons ago, when the Bucs were on their way to the Super Bowl, they mattered. Kids wore their jerseys. Their defense was compared to the best that had ever played the game. They were like a gunfighter in the street; everyone knew their names.

And, along the way, that team connected to Tampa Bay. Its qualities became the community's qualities. We imagined ourselves to be loud like Sapp and fast like Brooks and fierce like Lynch and versatile like Barber and tough like Alstott. And so on.

Ah, but more than a decade has passed since this team won a playoff game. This looks as if it will be the sixth straight season without reaching the postseason. Not since 2005, when Cadillac Williams was young, have the Bucs had a player in the top 10 in NFL jersey sales. (Williams was eighth.)

Did you see Peter King's indispensable Monday Morning Quarterback column this week on the Sports Illustrated website? Each week, King gives dozens of opinions on the NFL, team by team, in a long, rambling review. The Bucs? This week, they earned item "g,'' on King's fifth page, 26 words worth, just before he started writing about coffee.

And who can blame him? The truth is that the Bucs are pretty much a dull team. They play dull, and they talk dull. Vincent Jackson, the captain, rarely speaks to the media. Josh Freeman is guarded on the podium. Greg Schiano is a just-the-facts-ma'am kind of interview.

Meanwhile, the offense is 31st in the league. The quarterback is 32nd in yards per game, last among starting quarterbacks in completion percentage. In its power ratings, has the Bucs 31st. There are drops. There are penalties.

Say what you want, but at least the Duke football team has great academics.

Look across the league: Denver matters because it has Peyton Manning. New England matters because it has Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. New Orleans matters because it has Drew Brees. Green Bay matters because it has won forever, and Seattle matters because it is starting to win now.

Baltimore matters because it won the Super Bowl, and San Francisco matters because of what Jim Harbaugh has accomplished. Dallas matters because it is America's team, although no one is quite sure what that says about America. At 3-0, the Bears are starting to matter again.

Tampa Bay? It's in the reject room from Animal House with Mohammed, Sydney, Jugdish and the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Look, you can rip this year's team if you want (and most of us have). At 0-3, it certainly hasn't made this team essential again. You can tear into the coach and the quarterback and the dropped passes and the penalties and the lack of points.

The truth is, this malaise is larger than this year, and it has been going on longer. The Giants are 0-3, too, but they still matter because they have won two of the past six Super Bowls. Washington still matters at 0-3 because of Robert Griffin III. Then there are the teams that matter a little bit, teams like Atlanta and Houston and Kansas City.

Then there are the teams you never think about. It's not that you dislike them; you just don't remember them unless they are thrust onto your TV screen. The Jags don't matter. The Browns don't matter. The Cardinals don't matter. The Raiders, despite what the guys dressed as Boba Fett and Princess Leia say, don't matter.

And the Bucs?

Sadly, they don't matter, either.

Remember when they did? Remember when every week was a sellout, when the billboards were all about waiting lists, when every conversation seemed to start with the Bucs?

Then there is this: If the Bucs are blacked out this week, it will be the 20th time in the past 25 home games. When you have empty seats and a blank TV screen 80 percent of the time, that's a statement that the product isn't good enough, isn't improving fast enough, and isn't worth the ticket dollar. The Bucs have lost much of their crowd, and most of their momentum, and they haven't provided enough entertainment to bring it back.

So how does a team matter again? How does it work its way into the very essence of the community it represents?

Relevance starts with winning, of course. It starts with fascinating performers, and many of those need to be home-grown. It starts with the local school kids saying "I want to be Doug Martin,'' or "I want to be Lavonte David.''

Here's a thought: Maybe, just maybe, it starts in the other team's end zone.

Start with that, and then go from there.

Team Irrelevant? For that, Bucs are a contender 09/24/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 25, 2013 12:55am]
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