How bad was it? Let me count the ways
From here, you can smell trouble. From here, you can see 6-10.

On Sunday afternoon, the 2006 NFL season fell on the Tampa Bay Bucs , who lost a game, a positive vibe and possibly their lunch money to the Baltimore Ravens. As stinkers go, this one was as spectacular as a glow in the distance. As previews go, it suggested the movie wasn’t anything to watch, after all.

This was bad. This was Howard the Duck bad, gas-prices-are-going-up-again bad, John Grahame-in-goal bad. This was spit-out-the-spoilt-milk bad, get-Mel-Kiper-on-the-phone bad, Paris Hilton-is-gonna-sing bad.

It was horrible times dreadful with a side order of rotten. It was 27-0 Baltimore, and it should have been worse. The Bucs wouldn’t have scored if they had stayed on the field until two hours after the Ravens’ team bus pulled away.

It was the worst possible way to open a season, and in the end, it left you with only one possible question: Can this team really be this awful? Answer: Evidently.

Who saw this coming? Who predicted that feel-good bunch of overachievers we saw scrap their way into the playoffs last year would suddenly reappear as, well, Mississippi State? Who would have thought the Bucs would end up beaten, bullied and bewildered? It was a confounding loss by a confounded team that never challenged the Ravens. I’m not sure, but at one time, I thought I saw Mike Shula tell Trent Dilfer to throw the ball to Courtney Hawkins.

That’s how bad it was. It was bad by historic proportions. Not since 1996, in the days of the old Sombrero, the old orange jerseys and the old winking pirate have the Bucs been handled like this at home. That Tampa Bay team lost 27-0 to Detroit, then rallied to finish 6-10.

I’ll be honest. That Bucs team would have been an 11-point favorite to beat the Bucs team we saw on Sunday. Yeah, yeah. It was only one game. The Bucs chanted that Sunday so many times they sounded Gregorian.

However, the disappointing part of Sunday’s game isn’t that the Bucs lost — insiders did not expect them to go undefeated — but that they didn’t challenge. The offense looked lost. The defense looked old. The offensive line looked overmatched. The running game looked invisible. The Bucs looked like a team where the players didn’t work enough in the preseason and where the front office didn’t work enough in the offseason.

How, then, do you figure that things will be just spiffy in the weeks to come? Is the line going to be nastier? Is the quarterback going to be sharper? Can anyone find out where Jon Gruden left his Joey Galloway?

Here’s how bad it was. The Bucs were cowed from the opener by the Ravens defensive line. Sure, the Bucs were without their starting offensive guards, but those guards aren’t exactly Kramer and Thurston. And every play was like an avalanche.

Here’s how bad it was. Behind 17-0 late in the first half, the Bucs were trying to run out the clock. They couldn’t. Here’s how bad it was. Late in the third quarter, the Bucs finally got within a local call of the end zone. After an injury timeout, they took a mulligan and called another timeout. And the play still failed.

Here’s how bad it was . The Bucs played two tight ends most of the game, and even with seven blockers, they couldn’t run the ball. Not that they tried. Cadillac Williams had one carry in the first quarter, only eight for the game.

Here’s how bad it was. After the game, Gruden declared for the spelling bee. “I can’t say anything when you score zero,” Gruden said. “Zero. Z-E-R-O. The sums it up pretty damn well.”

Here’s how bad it was. It opened the door for every concern you might have had.

Worried about the age on defense? The Ravens kept the ball for 14 plays and more than nine minutes on their opening drive. Steve McNair, the 67-year-old quarterback with 400,000 miles, looked coltish.

Fretting about the starting quarterback? When a passer has a rating below freezing, you know he’s in trouble. Simms was at 30.5 after throwing three interceptions. He threw for 133 yards for the offense, and the defense returned the picks for 123 yards. Throw in 20 yards worth of sacks, and the quarterback finished with negative numbers.

Concerned about the offensive line? Gruden was, too. He opened the game rolling out and chipping away, a hint that he knew the Bucs couldn’t stand up to the Ravens. Here’s the thing. The Bucs better hope the Ravens, 6-10 last year, are pretty darned good. Because the alternative is scary. “If I thought this was the way we are going to play the rest of the season, I’d be cussing right now,” Ronde Barber said. “But we have a lot of talent. We’re going to play better.”

And if they don’t? We can all spell out their chances of success. Zero. Z-E-R-O.

Gary Shelton, The St.Petersburg Times 11 September 2006