TAMPA — Once again, there are doubts. Once again, as always with this franchise, there are concerns. And questions. Lots and lots of questions.
Are the Bucs really getting better? Is there hope for the future? Is coach Lovie Smith the right man for the job? Will this franchise ever turn it around?
Another season of hope and promise is wobbling to a finish of disappointment and frustration.
Three losses and counting. Another season of double-digit losses is only 60 minutes away.
What the heck happened? Just a few weeks ago, they were taking up decent real estate in the NFL power rankings. Analysts were talking about the new-and-improved Bucs. They were racing toward a winning record, their first in five seasons. In their sights, a possible playoff berth, their first in eight seasons.
Then the bottom fell out, just like it always does with this outfit.
A loss at home to the Saints. A loss on the road to the Rams. Then came Sunday's 26-21 not-really-that-close loss to the Bears.
Not exactly a Murderer's Row of football teams. In fact, three lousy teams with their blinkers on, searching for the off ramp of the 2015 season. Yet a Bucs team supposedly motivated to finish the season on the upswing made too many careless mistakes and too many bone-headed decisions to compete against three disinterested teams.
"I think throughout the season, this team was reaching a good note," tackle Demar Dotson said. "These last three games, this team has not been what we were throughout the season. That's kind of disappointing that in the last part of the season, we hit a slump."
In the grand scheme of things, in a league that cares only about final records and playoffs, you could make a case that the Bucs really aren't playing for much since being eliminated from postseason contention.
But we all know better. The Bucs have been playing for something all along. These games matter — to help create a winning culture, to help build momentum toward next season. Most of all, these games were supposed to represent proof that this team really is getting better, that it really does have a bright future.
Which is why the home finale — on top of the past two weeks — was so demoralizing for the Bucs and their fans. For those who walked out of Raymond James Stadium on Sunday afternoon after what you witnessed, how confident are you that this will be a much-improved team the next time you see it?
Of course, because it doesn't benefit Smith to lump the past three games together, he would suggest to ignore the sour trend the Bucs are on.
"We're going to talk about this one, right now," Smith said. "We're not going to talk about the (games) we had before. We're going to talk about this loss. That's disappointing because we're a lot better football team than that. … Let's not group it all together."
Stay updated on Tampa Bay’s sports scene
Subscribe to our free Sports Today newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
Lovie (who, by the way, isn't going anywhere) doesn't have to group them together, but we will. How can you not? They all look the same. Too many turnovers. Too many penalties. Not enough takeaways.
The result: the longest losing streak of the season that is ruining the good vibe of what had previously been an okay season.
"This is the NFL; sometimes, stuff happens," Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston said. "We don't want it to happen to us. We don't want it to happen. We've got to be accountable. Every one of those games, it's our fault."
Winston is right. These three losses have said more about the Bucs than their opponents, and that's why they're now 6-9 and trending the wrong way.
Look, this season, if we're being truthful, was never really about playoffs and division titles but about building a solid foundation. And, to be fair, up until the past couple of weeks, the improvements were not only possible but noticeable.
Winston has the makings of a franchise quarterback. The revamped offensive line, anchored by a couple of impressive rookies, shows promise. If Mike Evans can cut down on his butter-finger drops and tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins can stay healthy, Winston has a couple of go-to pass targets. And if Doug Martin sticks around, the Bucs have one of the league's best running backs.
The defense remains a work in progress but nothing that a draft or two can't fix.
But Sunday was the type of off-kilter performance that shows plenty of work remains. It was the type of performance that makes you wonder if what we saw earlier this season was the real deal or fool's gold.
All that's left is a date next week at Carolina with, perhaps, the best team in the NFL. You could argue that the result really doesn't matter. You could even argue that a Bucs loss wouldn't be a bad thing because it would improve draft position.
"It's about us bouncing back next week," Smith said. "That's the taste that we'll have in our mouths, of how we play our last football game."
There's one game left to salvage something, but the Bucs are limping to a finish that makes you question how far this team has come this season.
And makes you realize just how far it still has to go.