When New England fell behind 28-9 to Houston on Sunday night, the doomsayers rushed to predict the end of the Patriots dynasty.
Six Super Bowl championships in 18 seasons. Thirteen conference championship game appearances. Seventeen seasons of 10 or more wins (and that’s not even counting the one already in progress).
Times during that span they’ve been pronounced dead? Too many to count.
We never learn, do we?
At the other end of the spectrum: the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Haven’t won a playoff game since they won the Super Bowl in 2002. Haven’t been to the playoffs since 2007. Haven’t won 10 games in a season since 2010.
In New England, winning back-to-back games has been routine. In Tampa Bay, winning back-to-back games, even against lousy opponents, is cause for celebration, proof that a turnaround is imminent, if it isn’t already under way.
We never learn, do we?
Maybe this really is a turning point. Maybe it’s not.
The point is, none of us really knows. We haven’t a clue. We just want to think we know and, like the Patriots doomsayers, want to be the first to say it.
There’s certainly a case to be made, and it’s a familiar one.
1996. The “Yuckaneers” game. The Bucs are 2-8 and visiting San Diego. They’re heavy underdogs.
Derrick Brooks and Warren Sapp are in their hotel room. The TV’s tuned to ESPN. Chris Berman, previewing the day’s games, dares to ridicule the Bucs. He calls them ... the Yuckaneers. The audacity!
And that was it. Enough was enough.
Brooks, Sapp and the Bucs were so incensed that they punished the Chargers 25-17.
They went on to win three of their final five games to finish 6-10. Yuckaneers no more, the Bucs won 10 games in 1997 and reached the playoffs for the first time in 15 years.
Around here, we think that’s how turnarounds happen because, like prisoners in Plato’s Cave, that’s all we know. There just haven’t been that many in team history. Aside from the Bucs’ late 1990s/early 2000s run, they’ve been a comic tragedy (or have they been a tragic comedy?). As far as we know, football players transform into an army of Incredible Hulks when they hear television commentators make fun of them.
So maybe this is that. Maybe these Bucs are like the 1996 Bucs, a young team that struggled early during its first season under a new head coach. Maybe Devin White’s body slam of Jaguars running back Leonard Fournette was more than macho bravado. Maybe it was a declaration: We’ve arrived. We’re big boys now.
… this is just more false hope.
There’s certainly a case to be made, and it’s a familiar one, too.
That case: all of Bucs history.
This franchise is a living and breathing representation of the “woman drinking kombucha” meme — disgust, then intrigue, then disgust again.
Remember 2016? The Bucs started 3-5 but finished 9-7. The next season, they started 2-6 and finished 5-11.
How about 2012, the last time the Bucs beat consecutive opponents by multiple scores? In fact, they won three straight games by 10 or more points. Though they finished 7-9, surely they were on the upswing.
(Narrator: They were not.)
The next season, they lost their first eight games, and coach Greg Schiano and general manager Mark Dominick ultimately were fired.
How about 2010, the last time the Bucs won 10 games? The next season, they won four.
And that 1996-97 turnaround? When we retell that story, we often skip an important detail: The Bucs stumbled at the start of the 1998 season, losing seven of their first 11 games. Progress, as it turns out, isn’t linear.
So let the debate begin: Is this the long-awaited turnaround or does a step back loom?
The answer, if we’re really honest, is that we don’t know and it’s too early to say.
That’s not to minimize the Bucs’ recent wins over the Falcons and Jaguars. It’s a promising sign that they’re thoroughly beating bad teams.
Their next test comes Sunday against a talented and well-coached Colts team that is still in the playoff hunt despite the sudden preseason retirement of their franchise quarterback.
Maybe we’ll learn something.