The Bucs open their season Sunday in New Orleans.
It's just one game. The result means no more or no less than any of the other 15 on the schedule.
But here's the deal: this game is huge.
For the psyche of a fragile franchise at a seemingly perpetual crossroad, this one game could set the tone for the rest of the season. And the Bucs go into it with more questions that answers, more doubts than certainties, more concerns than optimism.
That's why it feels like so much is riding on this one game.
No one really knows what to make of this Bucs team. They aren't like the Patriots, a team that everyone knows is going to be good. They aren't like the Bills, a team that everyone knows is going to be bad.
The Bucs? Who's to say? No one knows. I'm not even sure the Bucs know what kind of team they have.
There are signs they could be pretty good. They are reasons to believe they could be pretty bad. Maybe they will be perfectly imperfect and mediocre. Predictions, both locally and nationally, are all over the map. They could win 10 games. They could win three. They could win the division and make a playoff run. Or they could finish last and end up with the first pick in the draft. Again.
It's a team that we just have to wait and see what's in store. And, Sunday, Bucs fans will start to see, perhaps through the cracks of their fingers.
The biggest, although not only, reason for the skepticism and anxiety surrounding the Bucs is because of the quarterback situation.
What a mess.
I love stories that show me WHY athletes are great at what they do. Thomas Bassinger's piece on Drew Brees' uncanny ability to evade pressure is one of those stories. #Saints @saints @tometrics #TBvsNO @drewbrees #Bucs https://t.co/TJ2hUJ8tl3— Frank Pastor (@FrankPastor66) September 7, 2018
If Jameis Winston could act like a responsible and respectful adult, he would be starting this game.
There is only one place he should be this Sunday and, the fact is, it's the one place on earth he is not allowed to be. He won't be anywhere near the Superdome.
Why he won't be in New Orleans and why he isn't starting the first three games has been well documented. That's the past. But now we get to find out about the future. Now we will start to see the actual outcome of his despicable behavior. Now will we see the consequences of his absence as the Bucs attempt to navigate a brutal start to the season without him.
They turn to backup Ryan Fitzpatrick. Nice guy and certainly no stranger to playing quarterback in the NFL. He has taken enough NFL snaps that he's not going to get the shakes when he lines up behind center on Sunday. When it comes to back-ups, you certainly could do worse than Fitzpatrick.
But, in a perfect world, Fitzpatrick would be standing on the sidelines in a ball cap with a clipboard in his hand. Instead, he will be trying to lead the Bucs in one of the toughest buildings in football against one of the best teams in the NFL.
Ryan Fitzpatrick has quarterbacked teams to 23 road victories. Only once did a victory come against a team that finished the season with a winning record. #Bucs #Buccaneers @NFLSTROUD @TB_Times #TBvsNO https://t.co/pB1sBWBGnr— TampaBayTimesSports (@TBTimes_Sports) September 7, 2018
The good news is Fitzpatrick had all preseason to get ready for this game.
"I though he (had a) really good preseason,'' Bucs offensive coordinator Todd Monken said. "The biggest thing with all the quarterbacks is not turning it over, and that's what we didn't do. That's the number one thing. There's no stat for how many five-yard or 10-yard completions you get that gives you a chance to win. It's the turnovers that kill you and they've done a great job. That's a carryover from practice."
But that's preseason. Even Fitzpatrick admits that you can't read too much into the preseason.
"It's hard to even compare (the preseason to the regular season),'' Fitzpatrick said. "The preseason is so vanilla and you don't really spend a lot of time on your opponents. You really kick it up a bunch of notches when you get to the regular season. … So there's a huge difference in what we do and how we approach it.''
Quarterback isn't the only concern.
Is Peyton Barber a bell-cow running back? Is the offensive line, even when healthy, reliable? Can the Bucs find a pass rush? Can they cover anyone? Will the defense be able to stop Drew Brees and the Saints? Will they be able to stop anybody?
Some of those questions will be answered Sunday.
A win and confidence will go through the Superdome roof. A loss leaves the Bucs with unanswered questions and more doubts.
It's just one game.
But it will go a long way in determining what kind of team the Bucs have and what the rest of the season will look like.
Contact Tom Jones at email@example.com. Follow @tomwjones