TAMPA — Bucs fans could always point their foam fingers at the Cleveland Browns and laugh.
The only NFL team that has a longer playoff drought than the Bucs are the Browns. Tampa Bay last made the post-season in 2007. The Browns went in 2002, the season that ended with Tampa Bay winning the Super Bowl XXXVIII.
Since then, no matter what calamity befell the Bucs — their offensive coordinator fired 10 days before the season opener, MRSA, Jameis Winston’s suspension — it was a match compared to the dumpster fire in Cleveland.
Just in the past few years, Browns fans have suffered through Johnny Manziel. general manager Sashi Brown and Hue Jackson keeping his job after 0-16 and 1-15.
Then came Browns general manager John Dorsey and everything has changed.
He had a good reputation doing the same job with the Chiefs. Now you may as well send his name to the engravers for NFL executive of the year.
It started last season with the Browns going against conventional wisdom and making quarterback Baker Mayfield the No. 1 overall pick. They drafted running back Nick Chubb and tight end David Njoku. To add to those weapons, this off-season they made a controversial decision to sign Kareem Hunt, who likely still faces suspension for domestic violence.
To improve the defensive front with edge rusher Myles Garrett, they traded for Olivier Vernon and swung a free agent deal for Sheldon Richardson.
Then late Tuesday, the Browns traded for Giants receiver Odell Beckham, Jr. They got him for an affordable price of first and third-round picks and safety Jabrill Peppers.
Suddenly, Believeland is the epicenter of the NFL.
Rookie coach Freddie Kitchens will not only have one of most explosive offenses in the league, the Browns may be picked to win the AFC North.
Meanwhile, the Bucs have watched Kwon Alexander, Adam Humphries and DeSean Jackson walk out the door.
When the free agent signing period began Wednesday, inbound for the Bucs was 49ers punter Bradley Pinion, kicker Cario Santos, Browns receiver Breshad Perriman, Cardinals linebacker Deone Buacannon (and holdover Kevin Minter) and seventh-year quarterback Ryan Griffin, who has taken as many snaps in a regular-season game as Bryan Glazer.
How can Cleveland — Cleveland! — have more hope than the Bucs with Winston under center for his fifth year?
This is the team that’s been the butt of all NFL jokes for more than a decade. Why don’t the Browns have a website? Because they can’t string three W’s together.
But who’s laughing now?
Beckham became the second superstar receiver to switch teams. The Steelers agreed last weekend to send Antonio Brown to the Oakland-until-next-year Las Vegas Raiders for third- and fifth-round draft picks.
“He can play split end, he can play flanker, he can play in the slot, he can return punts and sell popcorn at halftime,’’ Raiders coach Jon Gruden said Wednesday.
Chucky’s in love.
Back here in Tampa Bay, the fans are restless.
Reaching an agreement with Peyton Barber on a one year contract just doesn’t move the needle.
Unless you are coach Bruce Arians.
“I love him,'' Arians said. “When you watch him on tape, you don’t see his 230 (pounds), you would think he’s a 205-pound running back because he’s got great feet. Not every back’s going to be a home-run hitter, but if he gets those 10-15-yard runs, breaking tackles, power runner, punishing runner, that’s kind of how I like to start. When we’re building something, that’s the kind I like to build around.”
Maybe he can sell popcorn at halftime.
For Bucs fans, this was always going to be a difficult off-season. The 2015 rookie class is all grown up and making grown up dollars. The Bucs have about $10-million of salary cap room, and that was before they released defensive tackle Mitch Unrein after he failed a physical Wednesday.
You remember Unrein? He was part of the great defensive line makeover this time last spring when he signed a three-year, $10.5-million contract as a Bears free agent. But he suffered a concussion the second week of training camp, went on injured reserve and had been in the protocol the past eight months.
So this promises to be a different kind of free agency period for the cash-strapped Bucs. Instead of putting faith in high-priced stars, the difference makers in the 2019 season will be wearing whistles.
Arians and his voluminous coaching staff will be the ones counted on to make 2019 a success.
Besides, when the new league year began Wednesday, Bill Belichick was so amped for it he was in Barbados in swim trunks. Not coming out of the gates fast in free agency hasn’t stopped the Patriots from winning six Super Bowls.
But the Dawg Pound is barking in Cleveland. And right now, Bucs fans are just hoping their team throws them a bone.
Contact Rick Stroud at [email protected] Follow @NFLStroud.