It is difficult to determine exactly when it was the Bucs turned back into the Bucs.
Maybe it was in the final seconds of Sunday's game, with quarterback Vinny Testaverde on his back, gazing in frustration at an official who would not raise his hands to signal a touchdown.
Oh, was Sunday's 24-14 defeat at the hands of hapless Indianapolis both familiar and just. The Bucs had fallen, just when you figured they were finally going somewhere.
Who knows how far Sunday's defeat set back this team? But the best guess is to about 1989 or so. You see, sometimes, a loss is more than just a loss. Sometimes, a loss is an invitation to ghosts that won't go away.
Here the Bucs were, hours from a 4-1 start with an open week coming up. Here they were, with only the Colts between them and credibility. Here they were, the Bucs.
Welcome back, guys.
Maybe it was with 5:29 left to play in the game that these players snapped out of it and realized who they were. That's when coach Sam Wyche called for a fake field goal that will be debated until the team kicks off in two weeks against Chicago.
The situation was fourth and 10, down by 10. Tampa Bay needed two scores. Most coaches kick the field goal, then try to tie it at the end. The odds of making a first down, frankly, aren't very good. Had the Bucs taken the field goal, their drive at the end would have meant something.
Yes, the Bucs will retreat into the old foxhole of "if it would have worked, you'd be saying what a wonderful play it was." But it is not the success or failure of a play that makes it a smart move; it is the percentage of success or failure.
Wyche insisted the percentages were with Tampa Bay. The Bucs had set up the Colts for a fake field goal, so Wyche made a now-or-never call for Dan Stryzinski to pass to Ron Hall. "We had an 80-percent chance of making it," Wyche said. "Except they blew coverage. They made a mistake and fell into it."
The mistake? Linebacker Chip Banks did not cover Tampa Bay tackle Mike Sullivan running deep. Just wondering, but why should he?
Maybe it was in the third period that the old Bucs returned. Certainly, it has been a putrid quarter for Tampa Bay all season. You begin to wonder if these guys have a dessert bar in the locker room. "I'm thinking about not going in and having a five-play scrimmage instead," said defensive coordinator Floyd Peters. "I'm serious. It's almost like we pack our bags."
It was in the third quarter that the Bucs' pass rush disappeared. It was in the third period that the secondary turned into Garry Lewis and the Prayboys. It was in the third period that the Bucs could not move the ball. And it was in the third period that the boos began.
Maybe it was in the first period that the memories stirred. That's when Tampa Bay was all over Indianapolis. The Colts were staggering so badly, you wondered if the ref was going to stop the fight. Indy had the ball all of 30 seconds in the first 15 minutes, yet the score was 7-7.
"At halftime, we should have been at the point of putting them away," said Hall.
Maybe it was even last week's practices that the horror began. Wyche kept telling his team it could lose to the Colts; perhaps they took him to heart.
Wyche swears the Colts are better than their reputation. Maybe. But don't kid anyone: At home, the Bucs still should be able to handle Indianapolis. "They're going to have a good year," Wyche said. No, they're going to fight the Patriots to stay out of the cellar.
Whenever it was, what happened Sunday was as tragic as it was familiar. Suddenly, people are going to notice the Bucs have beaten the always sickly Cardinals and Packers and the lame-again Lions. A good September wasn't wasted, but it was put into perspective.
Sunday afternoon, the Bucs even sounded the way they used to, swearing this team was indeed different, vowing they would bounce back.
Even Wyche wondered about that. "We won't find out until two weeks whether this team will bounce back or let this affect them," he said. "We have to decide what has to be regained."
Gaining something back, however, is only part of the task. The Bucs also have to lose something again.