The campaign to save Tony Dungy's job resumes today.
It has come to this, and frankly, it has arrived quickly. Already, the season has turned ugly. The critics are not only growing, they are growing louder.
The record is familiar enough. The Bucs are 3-4, but then again, they always are 3-4. This time, however, it feels worse. The hole seems deeper. The climb out looks steeper. Every fan who has a voice seems to have it turned up to full volume. Such is the definition of pointed criticism. In the Bucs' case, it is all pointed in the direction of Dungy, who is either (pick your adjective) too cautious, too conservative, too calm, too stubborn, too even-keeled, too predictable, too offensive-challenged or too familiar. In any case, fans seem to have seen too much of 3-4.
These days, you hear the names of Bill Parcells and Steve Spurrier so often, you'd think they were running for mayor. People who once cheered Dungy's name speak it as if it were a swear word.
It will take Dungy's finest coaching job to stave off all of this, to take all of the threads that seem to be unraveling and weave them into what was expected of this team.
And if Dungy is going to succeed, and survive, it has to begin today.
"As a guy I've gone to war with, as someone I trust and believe in, I think the criticism is ridiculous," safety John Lynch said. "I was listening to something the other day, and it wasn't whether Tony was going to get fired, but who was going to take his place. That's hard to fathom. But I also understand the frustration. We're frustrated. And it's hard to be rational when you're frustrated."
When defensive tackle Warren Sapp is asked about Dungy's critics, his face twists as if the subject brings him pain.
"It baffles me more than anything else," Sapp said. "What standards are they holding him by? The 6-10 first-year team? Or the 10-6 second-year playoff team that fought for its life in Green Bay trying to get to the championship game? Or the '98 team that underachieved and went 8-8? Or the '99 team that went to the championship game and held the greatest show on earth to 11 points? Or last season's team, when everything seemed to unravel and it still found a way to get to the playoffs? That had a shot at winning the Central Division title with our best player on the field kicking at Green Bay?
"Is it the expectations that we're a Super Bowl team? Well, we're trying to get there. It ain't like it happens overnight. That's the thing that's disheartening. This is the man who has steered this organization into respectability, well beyond respectability, to a Super Bowl contender. And that's not enough for Tampa Bay?"
For much of Tampa Bay, evidently it is not. Standards and expectations and payroll have climbed. Production has not.
Break it down, and this 3-4 start is worse than the matching records of the previous three seasons. This time, there are no stars in the darkness. Before, you always could count on the Bucs defense _ which was in the top five in each of those seasons _ to hold up while the offense tried to catch up. This season, the offense sputters as usual. But the defense against the run, and on third down, hasn't been dependable.
Perhaps that's the reason so many people seemed to be talking about how dangerous the Lions (0-7). It always is a humorous notion that the fewer victories a team has, the more its opponent should be worried. Right. And it's a shame the Bucs aren't playing, say, the Rams instead.
Yes, these Lions can break your heart if you're fans of the Lions. They are dangerous in the way Peter McNeely or Hamilton Burger were dangerous. They are dangerous the way a rake lying in your front yard is. You'll be fine if you don't step on it.
Here's what the Lions have in common with the Bucs. They've each lost about three more games than they should have. The truth is the team that is most dangerous to the Bucs today is, well, the Bucs. If they pay attention, they should win. Hey, if they can't beat an 0-7 team, what do they deserve?
They should enter a six-game stretch where they have a chance to turn their season around (two against Detroit, two against heaven-kissed Chicago, one against the Bengals and one against the Rams). Yes, it's more difficult than in the past. The remaining schedule has won more games and lost fewer (even counting Detroit twice) than it had in the past few years. Still, the Bucs could be favored to win five of those games. That could make them 8-5 entering their murderer's row of home games against the Saints, Ravens and Eagles.
Lose, on the other hand, and things get ugly. "We'd all go on a suicide watch, and I'd be the first one," Sapp said.
For the Bucs, there is much that must change. The offensive line has to play better. The defensive line, too. Play-calling has to be sharper. Third-down defense has to be better. The team, which never has blocked, must learn how. The team, which always tackled, must remember how.
Once, people used to categorize their criticisms and dole it out to the quarterback or the offensive coordinator. Now, all of them are aimed at Dungy. You don't even need programs anymore. Who was responsible for the bad play call? Dungy's coordinator. Who threw the interception? Dungy's quarterback. Who missed that tackle? Dungy's linebacker. Sometimes, you get the idea the talent has won three games, but Dungy has lost four.
"If this team doesn't love this man, it's stupid," Sapp said. "Absolutely stupid. If this team doesn't love this man, maybe it explains why we're 3-4 and looking for answers.
"We know we're being led in the right direction by the right man in the right system with the right people in place to get it done. Fans are fickle. But how do you get fickle without winning beforehand? The one who brought you winning is the one you're fickle with."
For the most part, you get the idea people are pulling for Dungy. It's easier to pull for a good guy to succeed than wonder who a new coach might be and what changes he might make and what players he might chase away. Most of us would prefer to see this team turn slowly around and get on a run.
If that's to happen, if it even has a chance to happen, it had better start today.
As for Dungy, he'd better coach his fanny off.
NUMBER OF PROBLEMS
Comparing the Bucs stats this season after seven games to the past three, in which they also started 3-4:
2001 2000 1999 1998
Offensive rank 23 22 27 27
Defensive rank 10(T) 5 4 3
Record 3-4 3-4 3-4 3-4
Final record ?-? 10-6 11-5 8-8
Remaining opponents record 35-29 33-30 33-30 32-31
Points scored 139 154 93 94
Touchdowns scored 16 18 8 11
First downs per game 19 17.4 17.1 15.4
Third down efficiency 35.1 38.3 32.3 41.0
Net yards per game 295.9 293.1 268.2 264.0
Rushing yards per game 86.3 111.3 121.6 129.0
Yards per rush attempt 3.5 3.7 3.1 4.0
Passing yards per game 209.6 181.9 146.6 155.3
Yards per pass attempt 6.64 6.40 5.69 5.53
Fumbles lost 3 8 7 9
Interceptions 4 6 10 8
Sacks 27 11 23 19
Points allowed 119 125 102 121
Touchdowns allowed 13 13 10 11
First downs per game 16.1 14.9 12.4 14.4
Third-down efficiency 44.3 26.3 28.4 30.5
Net yards per game 301.0 273.0 253.6 254.7
Rushing yards per game 124.1 107.0 80.6 83.1
Yards per rush attempt 4.5 4.3 3.5 3.1
Passing yards per game 176.9 166.0 173.0 171.6
Yards per pass attempt 6.80 5.98 6.14 6.11
Fumbles recovered 3 6 1 6
Interceptions 13 8 5 4
Sacks 13 35 23 11