There they were, on their way to the worst trouncing this franchise had ever seen. Considering the history of this franchise, that's saying something.
They already had lost to a second-team quarterback.
They already had lost to a third-team quarterback.
The offense had no spark. The defense had no muscle. The free agents looked overpriced. The quarterback looked in over his head. Everyone was in gauze. Yeah, it looked as if the Tampa Bay Bucs were dead in the road.
And still, this team has life.
Can you believe it?
The Bucs, the horrible Bucs, have been as slow to respond to a new coach as anyone feared. Slow enough, it seems, that some of their fans are already checking out mock drafts. What were you going to believe in? The quarterback? The defense? The running back? The offensive line? The secondary?
It is a season that began in quicksand. Greg Schiano still might as well have been the coach, or Raheem Morris, or for that matter, Leeman Bennett. This league just looked too big for the Bucs.
And still, this team has a chance.
As the Bucs prepare to play the Saints today in New Orleans, they remarkably find themselves with a pulse. Who would have thought it? As bad as the Bucs were before the late stages of last week's Pittsburgh game, the NFC South has been almost as lousy. The Bucs are within one game of the division lead, a miracle right up there with the loaves and fishes.
The Saints, also 1-3, can't stop anybody. The Falcons, 2-2, have been shredded on the offensive line. The Panthers, 2-2, are out of running backs. These days any of them would be happy to finish 9-7. That might win the title.
You can talk a long time about the division's opposing quarterbacks and wide receivers. Yeah, this division is long on opposing highlights. But defense? Who plays defense?
The Panthers are the 23rd-ranked defense in the league. The Bucs are 25th. The Saints are 29th. The Falcons are 31st. It's like watching golf. No one plays defense.
So who scares you? Oh, that's right. The Bucs scare you.
Still, there is something to a new coach and a little time. Bill Walsh needed time. Joe Gibbs needed time. Tony Dungy needed time. Tom Landry needed time. Chuck Noll needed time. Looking back, perhaps we should have realized it was going to take time for Lovie Smith to get the wretched off the Bucs. They were so bad last year, a 4-12 season that could have been 2-14 without much sweat at all.
The thing is, the rest of the division has conspired to keep the Bucs afloat. At this point, it isn't clear if anyone should win the division, one where someone is usually pretty good, even if it isn't the someone you originally suspected. So many teams have gone from worst to first in the NFC South that you suspect they are taking turns.
The thing is, the Bucs' time is here. If they want to hang around, October has to be markedly better than September. Otherwise, the Steelers game will amount to little than a nice afternoon.
The Bucs are 1-2 in their division (1-3 overall). A victory today and they have a puncher's chance. A loss and they're playing chase once again. A victory and everyone pays attention again. A loss and it's hockey season.
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You think about the Saints offense and you wonder how in the world New Orleans has the same record as the Bucs. For goodness' sake, what's to stop Drew Brees from simply standing up and throwing the ball to tight end Jimmy Graham every play? I mean, 30 times? Last week the Steelers threw 11 times to tight end Heath Miller, and fairly ignored, he caught 10 passes. Who's to say the Saints don't get well all at once against the Bucs?
Of course, New Orleans has to play defense some, too. And so far, it has played dodgeball when the other team had the ball.
Will that continue against the Bucs? It's going to be interesting to see how quarterback Mike Glennon plays in his second start. Glennon was sensational against the Steelers, bringing his team from behind in the dying seconds without any timeouts. It was the kind of performance that changes the way a team looks, the way a season feels.
The thing is, young Bucs quarterbacks have played well against Sean Payton's teams over the years. Remember 2006, when Bruce Gradkowski started his first game for the Bucs and threw for 225 yards in a 24-21 defeat? Remember 2007, when Luke McCown threw for 313 yards in an upset win? Remember the final game of the 2010 season, when Josh Freeman hit 21-of-26 for 255 yards in a win?
The point is, the Saints will give the Bucs opportunities to make plays. Whether the Bucs can make enough to keep pace with Brees and company is the question.
If they can, however, they are on a two-game winning streak and it will be a little easier to believe things are changing. Sure, the Bucs still have a lot to prove. In this league, however, victories mean possibilities.
After this start, that's about all anyone can ask for.