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We’re still waiting for a return to glory, Bucs

Bucs defensive tackle Gerald McCoy shows frustration during a game against the Saints last season. [LOREN ELLIOTT   |   Times]
Bucs defensive tackle Gerald McCoy shows frustration during a game against the Saints last season. [LOREN ELLIOTT | Times]
Published Jun. 3, 2018

TAMPA – A couple of weeks ago, I spotted Bucs defensive tackle Gerald McCoy in his jersey. He was on his way to a big game. It was at Amalie Arena. McCoy was in a Lightning jersey. It was hockey.

"I love my city," McCoy said.

Tampa is McCoy's city, and during its Stanley Cup run, cut short or no, the Lightning was McCoy's team. It swept up the community. It made McCoy think, just like the rest of us:

What if the Bucs did that?

It would be a typhoon is what it would be. The Bucs would sweep us all up, as they did in 2002, all those football seasons ago. The Bucs have skipped a generation. No matter.

"It's a feeling, a dream I've had," McCoy said.

Last Thursday, he stood near a practice field at One Buccaneer Place, his face dripping sweat after an organized team activity, a lofty title for offseason pain and suffering.

Every team looks 13-3 during OTAs. But the Bucs really don't seem closer to the playoffs than they did when McCoy arrived in 2010. McCoy turned 30 in February. He has been named to six consecutive Pro Bowls. He has signed nearly $160 million in contracts. He is a good and decent man, a credit to his community. But he is still chasing. The clock ticks.

It doesn't help when the Bucs are overhyped, as they were last season, beginning with Hard Knocks. McCoy had fun with it. He showed up for training camp in a kimono. Then the Bucs went out and had an awful season, 5-11. One more of those and heads will roll, beginning with coach Dirk Koetter and GM Jason Licht. The schedule doesn't look easy, and the Bucs might start the season without Jameis Winston, who might be suspended per NFL investigation. No one is sure. What I do know for sure is that Gerald McCoy dripped sweat last Thursday.

"The biggest enemy of progress is success," he said. "I can say I'm doing my part and everybody else needs to do stuff. But that's not me. I can be way better. It's a different approach every year, but it's a positive one every year."

He liked the additions the Bucs made in the offseason, including bringing in former Philadelphia Eagles defensive linemen Vinny Curry and Beau Allen, fresh from a Super Bowl win. That's the dream for McCoy.

"Beau and Vinny, they have footballs of the Super Bowl, with the score, sitting in their lockers."

McCoy was 14 when the Bucs won the Super Bowl. He watched from afar and wondered what it would be like. Imagine this town if this team ever delivered. Those of us who were there know what it was like. The Bucs were the main circuit in 2002. Everything went through them. The whole town, every fan, was in on it. What a ride.

"They get behind you," McCoy said. "It would be incredible."

The reality is that only the Cleveland Browns have had a less recent playoff appearance than the Bucs, who last made the postseason in 2007. They have not won a playoff game since that night in San Diego early in 2003.

Think about the other teams in town. Since the Bucs last won a playoff game, the Lightning has won a Stanley Cup and made conference finals. Since the Bucs last made the playoffs, the Rays made a World Series out of nowhere and put together four playoff seasons. We just went through six weeks of Lightning fever. Now the Rays seem to be reinventing themselves in encouraging, entertaining ways. And then there are the Bucs.

But there is Gerald McCoy, his face dripping in late May.

"You play the game to win. I'm always going to feel confident. Otherwise, why am I out here? Offseason is offseason. You get excited for the names, but there's too much work to be done. It's hot out here. … Anything can look good on paper. Can you make it look good in the stadium?"

If success is indeed the biggest enemy of progress, I'd say the Bucs have few enemies heading into 2018. Forget the HBO cameras. Forget attention. No expectations, tough division.

"You don't want people talking about you," McCoy said. "That makes you that much more dangerous. You catch people off guard. You can be the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Buffalo Bills."

McCoy has had a great career. But he's a Ring of Honor without a ring. His team has never owned his city.

"Dreams are not given to us," he said. "You've got to keep fighting."

Man, it was hot out there.

Contact Martin Fennelly at mfennelly@tampabay.com or (813) 731-8029