Good? Yes. But good enough? No.
They were better than you expected. They were not as good as you had hoped. In the aftermath of a season that died young, that seems about as good a way to remember the 2007 Tampa Bay Bucs as any.
In the end, they were not especially good, and in the beginning, they were not spectacularly bad. They were good enough to end the laughter, but they could not extend the cheers. They were enough to beat the midgets on their schedule, but they could not stand up the Giants in the postseason.
And so it ends for the Bucs: One, done and overrun by a New York team that, just between us, isn't that good, either. Still, the Giants had their way with Tampa Bay on Sunday afternoon, winning 24-14 and leaving the Bucs looking as if these playoffs were over their heads. The Giants looked bigger than the Bucs. They looked stronger. They looked smarter. It is a great thing that the Bucs were so well-rested coming in because, otherwise, this really might have looked one-sided.
For much of the afternoon, the Giants seemed determined to remind you of how bad the prognosticators thought the Bucs would be this season. Quarterback Jeff Garcia looked as if he overslept. Wide receiver Joey Galloway looked as slow as a man jogging through a park. The offensive line could not protect the quarterback. The defense could not protect the end zone.
And when it was done, it was a bit more difficult to think of the Bucs as the plucky underdogs they had been for much of the season. That's the question, isn't it? Now that the season has ended, how should it be remembered? After all, the Bucs won nine games, and they lost eight. They were feisty, but they were flawed. They were competitive, but they were not contenders. And they managed to turn Eli Manning into Peyton.
Resilient? Yeah, you can remember that about the Bucs. There is something to be said for a team that can find overachievers like an Earnest Graham, a Greg White, a Donald Penn and a Luke McCown along its way to a winning season. Even a loss such as this shouldn't erase all of that from your memory. "There is the heart of a champion in that locker room," Bucs coach Jon Gruden said.
Promising? Yeah, you can fashion an argument about that, too. With Gaines Adams and Tanard Jackson and a young offensive line, there is some reason to hope that the Bucs will be better next season.
Unfulfilling? That's the word Ronde Barber used, and it seems to fit. Yes, yes, a thousand times yes, the Bucs are better than anyone expected in July. But this team changed expectations along the way, remember? And, yes, a team ought to win a home playoff game. Talented? As of Sunday, that's a harder sell. Especially at the skill positions.
Imagine this game, if you will, from the perspective of Giants middle linebacker Antonio Pierce. What do you think bothered him the most as he looked across the line of scrimmage into the Bucs huddle?
That's the problem. The Bucs simply don't have enough playmakers to make a good team nervous. Aside from Garcia heaving it long to Galloway - a prospect that gets more difficult as opponents get better - the Bucs don't have a deep threat. On a day such as Sunday, when Galloway was bothered by a sore shoulder, the offense is reduced to those nibbles-and-inches drives that seem to take 10 plays. When a team has to string that many plays together to score, a lot of things can go wrong.
Remember how the Bucs went after pass rushers last offseason? This offseason, they should go after wide receivers that way. Galloway will be 37 in November. Isn't it time the Bucs had a more complete player as their No. 1 receiver? Garcia, too, talked about needing more explosiveness from the receivers next season.
"I will be very hands-on this offseason and be better involved in whatever it takes," Garcia said.
Perhaps that is the best answer. Perhaps the legacy of this season depends on the next one and the one after that. Remember the 2005 season? The Bucs thought they were onto something then, too. That was before the careers of Chris Simms, Cadillac Williams and Michael Clayton all fizzled short of stardom.
This time? We'll see what happens with the careers of these young players. How should you remember this season? There is only one answer. In the end, it wasn't enough. In the end, neither were the Bucs.
Gary Shelton, The St.Petersburg Times 7 January 2008