Bucs lost out on playoffs but found so much more
Spend the next eight months wondering "what if" for the Buccaneers if you want, but I'll pass.

They missed the playoffs and we don't get to watch this fascinating, entertaining collection of no-names and fill-ins play until next season. So many other things went right, though, that it's impossible to judge this as anything but success on a large scale.

There will be a time perhaps as soon as next year when failing to reach the postseason will be met with a more critical eye, but not just yet. This was still one of the most remarkable runs in franchise history and it seems like more of a beginning than an end.

Although the Bucs kept their season alive for about three hours after they walked off the field Sunday by beating defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans 23-13, they needed Green Bay and the Giants to lose and neither did. So be it.

This team still reached the once-preposterous goal of 10 wins set by Coach Raheem Morris. The Bucs went 6-2 on the road. They stayed in the playoff race about 12 weeks longer than people expected they would.

I think back to one year ago. Like a lot of people, I didn't believe Morris would survive a second season. I wasn't sure Josh Freeman had the goods to be a franchise quarterback. I had no idea how they'd successfully run the ball, or who would catch Freeman's passes. Now we know.

We know about Freeman. Rookie running back LeGarrette Blount topped 1,000 yards rushing. Rookie receiver Mike Williams finished with 11 touchdowns and fell just 36 yards short of 1,000. "People begrudge me when I say this, but this is by far the most talented team I've been on," ageless cornerback Ronde Barber said.

"You can talk about the Super Bowl team or whatever; that team was talented. But across the board, position by position, I've never been on a team with this much talent. The foundation is absolutely in place. We will be as good as this talent decides it wants to be going forward."

They'll want to kick themselves all the way until training camp for the 23-20 overtime loss against Detroit. "We're always going to look back at that Detroit game," tackle Donald Penn said

Don't forget the yard they couldn't get at the end of the first game at Atlanta in early November. Or for the kickoff return for a touchdown the Falcons got in the rematch last month, a play that turned that game and the season on its backside for the Bucs.

"Nobody wants to call it a success. When you win 10 games, you're supposed to get an opportunity to show (in the playoffs). So with 10 wins, yeah, people would say we've made strides but everybody is going to say, 'If we had done this' or they'll look at that play," receiver Micheal Spurlock said.

Players caught peeks at televisions in the locker room as they dressed for the flight home. The late games had just begun and the Bucs were trying to play it cool, but it was hard. At one point when Bears quarterback Jay Cutler was sacked, Freeman muttered "C'mon, Jay."

Off to the side, Barber was talking about Morris, talking about the future of this team. "People didn't believe in us and they were right not to do that youngest team in the league and he's the youngest head coach. There were a lot of people out there who didn't believe he was the right guy for the job," Barber said. "But given an opportunity, he did it. That's what I'm taking out of this for him. Despite everyone's disbelief in him, he did a great job in leading us."

Barber was coy about returning next season, but he sure sounded like he still wants to be part of a building story. However it goes, the Bucs can move forward knowing the coach, the quarterback and so many other pieces are in place. Instead of wondering what might have been, people can smile and wonder if the best is yet to come.

We think back to where they were this time last year, and we see them now. They lost a shot at the playoffs Sunday. As this season winds to a close, though, look at everything else they found.

About the writer
Joe Henderson writes a regular Sunday column for The Tampa Tribune for many years although during the NFL season, turns his attentions to the Buccaneers and often writes gameday features for the paper and TBO.com.