TAMPA — Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me since 2008, shame on me.
That’s your predicament this morning. Choosing between the promises of the past five weeks, and the reality of the past dozen seasons.
Shockingly, inexplicably, joyfully, the Bucs are on a roll after their 38-35 victory Sunday against Indianapolis. Since Nov. 10, the only teams in the NFL with a better record than Tampa Bay are the Ravens and Seahawks. If the Bucs aren’t one of the more talented teams in the league, they’re doing a pretty good job of faking it.
The question is whether this is a turning point, or another tease. After all, you’ve purchased fool’s pewter before.
In 2010, the Bucs just missed the playoffs after going 3-1 down the stretch for Raheem Morris. And the next season they fell to 4-12. In 2016, they finished in second place after winning six of their last eight games for Dirk Koetter. And then they went 5-11 the next season.
“There’s definitely a new culture in this locker room. We have momentum and guys are starting to get more confident,’’ said center Ryan Jensen. “My high school coach used to say you had to straddle that line between cocky and confidence. I think a lot of young guys are starting to figure that out around here.’’
So here’s one way to look at it:
The Bucs have played six teams that currently have winning records. They are 1-5 in those games. They have played seven games against teams that currently have losing records. The Bucs are 5-2 in those games.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with that. You need to win the games you’re supposed to win. But it does suggest the Bucs are closer to being a middle-of-the-pack team, and this recent winning streak has more to do with competition than talent.
Or here’s another way to look at it:
Some young Bucs are growing up. They are still making mistakes — a 45-yard pass interference penalty on Jamel Dean or four turnovers on offense — but they are also making plays when necessary. After losing four games by one touchdown or less, the Bucs have won two nail-biters in the past month.
“You go on a little streak like this and you can feel the confidence in the building grow,’’ said tight end Cameron Brate. “Even though we weren’t playing well and we got down two touchdowns in the second half, there was still a belief that we were going to come back and win. That’s huge. In the past, we wouldn’t have had that.
“I don’t think we would have won this game earlier in the season.’’
So now the challenge for you is to accurately decipher what you’re seeing.
The defense is still allowing too many mediocre quarterbacks, such as Jacoby Brissett, throw for a lot of yards without an interception. The offense still can’t get a running game going, as evidenced by Ronald Jones and Peyton Barber averaging 3.3 and 3.1 yards per carry against a Colts defense that was giving up 4.4 yards a crack.
And then, of course, there is Jameis Winston.
He made some plays and throws on Sunday that only a handful of quarterbacks in the world could pull off. And yet he threw three more interceptions, including another returned for a touchdown.
Winston has now had five interceptions returned for scores this season. Since the NFL merger in 1970, the only quarterback who has had thrown more pick-six passes in a single season was Peyton Manning with six in 2001.
Yet in a league where Houston can beat the Patriots one week and lose to the Broncos the next, you cannot dismiss a victory of any type.
“We’re still making stupid mistakes, making turnovers. But we’re able to overcome them and that’s the sign of a good football team,’’ said tackle Demar Dotson. “Early in the year we were spotting teams 10-14 points and we were losing. Now we’re able to overcome it. That’s a sign this shift is starting to happen.’’
By the way, the shift is too late for 2019. Minnesota’s 20-7 victory against the Lions on Sunday officially eliminated the Bucs from the playoffs. But that doesn’t mean the final three weeks are meaningless.
It’s three more chances for the Bucs to convince you this turnaround is for real.
John Romano can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.