Can a team play as bad as the Bucs just did and still be called elite?
You probably think you've seen this game before. Around here, it's practically a badge of honor. There was the embarrassment against the Packers in 1983. And the Eagles in '88. There were beatdowns by the Jets and Lions, along with curb-stompings by the Falcons and Bears. You're not a true Buccaneers fan if you haven't hidden beneath the covers on multiple Monday mornings.

But here's the thing: Back then, the guys running the huddle were named Jack Thompson and Steve DeBerg. Chris Chandler and Craig Erickson. For heaven's sakes, Josh Johnson and Luke McCown were the quarterbacks once upon a time. Not Tom Brady.

And back then, the Bucs were a national joke. A team that was already planning for the draft before the Halloween decorations came down. This franchise once went 12 consecutive seasons with 10 or more losses. They weren't Super Bowl contenders.

In your heart, and your craw too, you know this one is different. This might be the most embarrassing loss for a franchise that invented humiliation. This was shocking, disappointing and, if you're the pessimistic sort, eye-opening. The Bucs were beaten 38-3 by the Saints in prime time Sunday night, and I'm not joking when I say the game wasn't that close. "We couldn't make a play to save our lives," said linebacker Shaquil Barrett.

This has you re-thinking everything you once believed. For the past week or two, you couldn't turn on ESPN without hearing someone talking about the Bucs as the NFC's best bet to reach the Super Bowl. They were hot. They were trendy. They were a fantasy team unto themselves. But they've had consecutive stinkers against the Saints, and that can't be ignored.

It doesn't mean the Bucs are not a good team. They are 6-3 and probably heading for an 11-win season. Better days are around the corner, and the playoffs are up the road. But you already knew the Bucs were good. The hope was that they were something special. That they were ready to play among the elite.

Now, it's worth pondering whether the Bucs have been fattening up against weak-to-middling competition. Yes, they beat the Packers. That's a quality victory. But they've lost twice to the Saints and once to the Bears. The next-best line on the resume is beating a mediocre Raiders team. "That's how you're usually judged," coach Bruce Arians said. "We were pretty good against Green Bay and really poor against New Orleans."

Which is also a pretty good description of Brady's season. He's been as hot as any quarterback in the league lately but has been outplayed by Drew Brees twice in a span of 57 days. Early in the second quarter, Brady became the first quarterback in Tampa Bay history to throw 200 consecutive passes without an interception. He promptly went on to throw three interceptions in his next 27 attempts. If you count the guys who caught Brady's picks, the Saints had 15 different players with receptions.

The 35-point margin also wound up as the most lopsided of Brady's career, which sounds even worse when you realize George Seifert, Jim Mora and Bobby Ross were still coaching when he broke into the NFL. "It's not about predicting the future. I'm not here to say this is what we're going to do based on losing one game," Brady said. "We're going to get back to work and try to do a lot better next week. We've got to win one game. We're 6-3. I wish we were a lot better than that. But this is where we're at."

So forget about the NFC South for now. Barring a New Orleans collapse, it's probably no longer in Tampa Bay's sights. Instead, the Bucs need to figure out who they are. Is this the offense that looked unstoppable with 83 points in back-to-back weeks against the Packers and Raiders? Is this the defense that was producing a splash play every few minutes in October? Or is this a team that struggles to adjust once an opponent introduces a few wrinkles?

You can make an argument that this was the most disturbing loss a good Tampa Bay team has ever had, but that doesn't mean it has to define who the Buccaneers are. There's still plenty of time to write a happy ending for the 2020 season. The Bucs are still fabulously talented on both sides of the ball, and they're still in good shape for the postseason picture. Where they go from here is up to them.

John Romano, Tampa Bay Times, published 9 November 2020