Why not the Bucs?
Why not now?
They are 4-4, and they are getting better by the week. The offense has never had this many weapons. The defense gives up acres at a time, but it manages to make big plays at crunch time. The team has won three of its past four, and it looks as if it has staked a claim on the future.
So why can't the Bucs be playoff contenders?
And why can't it be this year?
All at once, as quick as Doug Martin squirting through a hole and running to legitimacy, the Bucs are a real team again. If they have accomplished nothing else through the first half of this season, it is that they are willing to trade punches with anyone.
Yeah, it got a little turbulent in the late going Sunday, and there for a while the secondary looked like it was outnumbered. But the Bucs won again, 42-32 over the Raiders this time, and in so doing they allowed the dreamers to come up for air. Maybe, you thought. Maybe.
Did you glance at the standings this morning, and if so, what does that tell you? For a very long time, looking at the league standings has been a depressing notion for Bucs fans. These days, however, it's a reminder of just how far the Bucs have come, and how fast.
Look at the NFC and the Green Bay Packers are the only nondivision leader with fewer losses than the Bucs.
What if the Bucs win next week against the Chargers? The following week against the Panthers?
How long before you believe in life after the regular season?
Around here, 4-4 looks a lot like hope. It looks like a cleansing of the past. It looks like a promise for the future. It looks like a very nice thing to say about the present.
"We keep talking about being 1-0 at the end of each individual season," coach Greg Schiano said. "I think if we keep doing that, we'll be in something. But we've got to do that. The minute you take your eye off of the immediate goal, I think you get yourself mixed up. I'm not naive that if you win enough games, you get in the tournament."
It has been some time since Bucs fans could even think that way. The team has made only two playoffs in the last decade, and it lost in the first round both times.
Given that, it's probably best Schiano preaches a little caution. On the other hand, the coach didn't have to live through the mud slide that concluded the 2011 season. That team seemed about a decade from a promising half-season. On the other hand, that team would have lost the Raiders game about a dozen ways.
"The one thing Coach has said — and it resonates with me because I'm 37 years old — is that he wants to win now," safety Ronde Barber said. "His mentality is that you are never promised tomorrow, so let's win now. That's what he preaches. That's how he handles each individual game. Guys are buying in. People believe that's how you win."
Said tackle Gerald McCoy: "Now. We want to win now."
Give Schiano credit for this: He has instilled a resiliency in this team that has been missing for a very long time. His team plays hard, and it plays tough, and it can overcome its shortcomings. It can get torched for a half by a quarterback such as Oakland's Carson Palmer and still make a standup defensive play to win the game.
Don't you like this team? Don't you like what you are seeing? Most of all, don't you like the young stars this franchise has finally imported?
Doug Martin? For two weeks now he has looked like Barry Sanders. With Martin, the end zone never looks very far away, does it? If anyone in the league can catch Robert Griffin III for rookie of the year, it is Martin.
Josh Freeman? Freeman hung up his fourth straight game with a 100-plus quarterback rating on Sunday. Suddenly he is Free-Wheeling Freeman.
Mike Williams? Gerald McCoy? Lavonte David? Mark Barron? Mason Foster?
Here's a warming thought: They're all younger than 25 years old.
So who says rebuilding takes time? Who says you shouldn't glance at the schedule ahead and wonder? Maybe it's time to stop the chatter about rebuilding and think about production.
"At the first of the season, I didn't know the team," Schiano said. "But I knew they worked awfully hard and we had some really good players. I thought if we went out and executed and did our job, we had a chance to win. In this league, that's what it's about. The talent differential is not very big."
No one is saying the Bucs are a finished product. There are moments when they look like a bloodied fighter holding on for the bell. There are areas where they remain short of talent.
But the Bucs are better this week than last, and they were better last week than the week before.
Don't you wonder how good they will be next week?
Listen to Gary Shelton weekdays from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. on 98.7-FM the Fan.