TAMPA — They are lords of the ordinary. Kings of the okay.
Behold the Tampa Bay Buccaneers: The champions of so-so.
In a country of extremes, the Bucs are pro football’s most reliable barometer between good and bad.
What else are we to infer after 12 weeks of one step forward and two penalties back? The Bucs routinely stomp on the dregs of the NFL, but turn into just another wannabe against playoff-bound opponents.
Sunday’s 27-24 disappointment against Kansas City was just the latest example of Tampa Bay’s not-quite-there-yet season. For three of the four quarters, the Bucs outscored the Chiefs 24-10. Still, they never had a shot at taking the lead.
So put the Chiefs game in the same category as the Rams game. And both New Orleans games, too. Against teams leading their divisions, the Bucs are 1-4 this season. And don’t the Packers feel silly this morning.
Technically, the Bucs are still in good shape. At 7-5 overall, they are the No. 6 seed in the scramble for seven playoff spots in the NFC. It’s just that, historically, teams that are 7-5 or worse after 12 weeks have a 6.4 percent chance of reaching the Super Bowl.
And wasn’t that the goal when the Bucs went shopping at the NFL’s Pro Bowl store and came home with a Tom Brady, a Rob Gronkowski, a LeSean McCoy, a Leonard Fournette and an Antonio Brown?
“Everybody tried to hand us the Lombardi Trophy in August,” coach Bruce Arians said. “You don’t just throw guys out there with names — you’ve got to practice. You’ve got to learn to get in synch with each other. That takes time.”
Yes, that’s true. But that didn’t stop the Bucs from chasing just about every big name that came available in 2020. So is Arians surprised that November ends with Tampa Bay so close to .500?
“Yes and no,” he said. “I think defensively, we’ve had our chances to be better. Offensively, it was going to be a work in progress all season. We’ve just got to win the next one and stay in this playoff hunt.”
When you look at it that way, the Bucs can still finish the regular season on a high note. Their final four opponents are 5-6, 4-7, 4-7 and 4-7. Even if they have an unexpected stumble, Tampa Bay should still win at least 10 games and reach the playoffs.
If the Bucs play up to their considerable potential, they might even finish 11-5 and get a first-round playoff game against whichever sad-sack team ends up winning the NFC East.
For a town that’s spent the past 12 postseasons watching games from a distance, that’s no small consolation.
But there’s a huge difference between making the playoff field and having a legitimate shot at reaching the Super Bowl. The offseason spending spree had a lot of people convinced Tampa Bay was in that class. And the Bucs did nothing to discourage that kind of thinking.
Now, they are paying the price of increased expectations.
Brady is having his statistics picked apart like never before. And a defense that looked like one of the up-and-coming units in the NFL, has surrendered an average of 28.7 points a game for the past month.
So how good do the Bucs think they are?
“As good as we want to be,” linebacker Shaquil Barrett said. “We can compete with all of them, but competing is not enough. We’ve got to start making the plays that we’re missing out on in these big-time games. We can’t keep being close.”
That’s the one hope that still remains. For all their stumbles against quality opponents, the Bucs have only been blown out by the Saints. Tampa Bay’s losses to Chicago, Los Angeles and Kansas City were by a combined seven points. You could pick one play out of any one of those three games, and make a case that the Bucs could be 8-4 and sitting pretty today.
But that’s not how the NFL works. You are the sum of your wins and losses, and Tampa Bay’s record suggests a team that is pretty good but nothing special. And if that ends up being the story of the 2020 season, there’s no way that doesn’t feel like a disappointment.
As Arians said, throwing names out there isn’t enough.
But when you chase that many names, you better be prepared for the expectations that come with them.
John Romano can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.