TAMPA, Fla. -- No one is really quite sure what to make of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The fact is, the Buccaneers are in the process of trying to figure that out for themselves.
Their 3-1 record says they're among the better teams in the NFL, but last year's 3-13 finish and the fact they have the second-youngest roster in the league leave plenty of skeptics wondering if they are for real or merely a mirage.
The New Orleans Saints are coming to town Sunday to help provide an answer. Although they are 3-2 and hardly showing the dominant form of 2009, they're still the defending Super Bowl champions and very capable of giving their surprising NFC South neighbor a humbling lesson.
"The Saints are a good barometer for this young football team," Buccaneers general manager Mark Dominik said. "So is the home game right after that against the St. Louis Rams, who are 2-3 and who are trying to rebuild and do the same thing we are. Those two games are going to be real indicators of where we are as an organization."
Said 14-year veteran cornerback Ronde Barber: "Our team will probably be defined by how our younger players play. And our young players are playing well this year, so we're winning."
So far, Buccaneers fans don't seem all that enthusiastic by the process or the prospect that the team they saw pretty much fall off the NFL map since winning the Super Bowl after the 2002 season is on its way to being relevant again. Sunday marks the third home game that won't be televised locally because it failed to sell out by Thursday's 1 p.m. ET deadline. It is expected that all eight home games will be blacked out.
The national media is every bit as cynical. When the Bucs scored a 24-21 victory at Cincinnati last week, less of the talk was about the resilience they showed in winning their fourth consecutive road game dating back to last season than it was about what was wrong with the struggling Bengals.
"That's the beauty of sports," said Raheem Morris, the Buccaneers' energetic second-year coach. "Respect is not given. You've got to go out there, and you've got to earn it every single week. And right now, we're thriving on the underdog (role)."
Frankly, a significant portion of the local population, which has been hit hard by the reeling economy and is not as quick to buy tickets as it was in the Bucs' Super Bowl-winning season, is still trying to sort out exactly who plays for this team. Although there are giant billboards and banners showing action shots of players all around Raymond James Stadium, there are no stars to prompt heavy jersey sales or generate much excitement.
"Largely, there's a bunch of guys that are faceless; they're numbers at this point," said Barber, the last remaining member of the Super Bowl team. "It's hard to sell that nationally, it's hard to sell that locally. Until they make a 'name' for themselves, it's hard to relate to them."
Then, there is the matter of the men leading the organization. For the longest time, the face of the Buccaneers belonged to Jon Gruden, who promptly guided them to their Super Bowl triumph in his first year after arriving from the Oakland Raiders. Bruce Allen, who also came from the Raiders, was the general manager. They were viewed as a highly accomplished, dynamic duo.
When both were fired after the 2008 season, Morris, a bright but relatively unknown assistant, was promoted to head coach, and Dominik, a bright but relatively unknown member of the front office, became GM. The suspicion was that ownership simply was going on the cheap, dumping Gruden's and Allen's hefty salaries for far less expensive replacements.
Perhaps that is true. But so far, Morris and Dominik are doing an impressive job of leading a youth movement whose early results might ultimately prove less important than what happens over the long haul.
It would just be nice if more people would take the time to notice.
"It was a massive transition that we did," Dominik said. "It's going to take a little bit of time for people to say, 'What's really going on in Tampa?' But I would think that, with the way guys are playing and performing, especially at such an early age, it should give everybody a thought to believe."
The main reason to believe that the Bucs' strong start could be sustainable is the performance of second-year quarterback Josh Freeman, who is 5-2 in his last seven games. His game has improved dramatically over a short time, allowing him to emerge as one of the top young quarterbacks in the league.
Freeman is unflappable. He has a strong arm. His powerful, 6-foot-6, 248-pound frame makes him difficult to sack, as does the fact he has good mobility for his size. Freeman doesn't have tremendous accuracy, but after throwing 18 interceptions last season, he is making significant strides in his decision-making.
"He's a special guy," said Bucs first-year quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt, who has contributed heavily to Freeman's rapid development. "One of his biggest strengths is his work ethic. He's in with me every day at 6:30 in the morning, watching film with me for a half-hour every day before we have a staff meeting. And he's not ever a repeat offender. If you correct him on something, you can see him apply it in practice and work on it."
Freeman's biggest lesson from last season was "learning what throws you can't and can make in this league." He spent the offseason working on enhancing his understanding protections, route concepts, coverages, and patience.
"I still have a bit of a gunslinger's mentality, where I want to throw the ball downfield and I want to make plays," Freeman said. "But at the same time it's how you can control that and harness that and make the smart play rather than the good-looking play all the time."
Freeman also shows natural comfort with his leadership role. He takes his offensive linemen out for dinner each week and enhanced the bonding with rookie receiver Mike Williams, who leads the team with 19 receptions for 238 yards and three touchdowns, by taking him to Game 5 of the Tampa Bay Rays' American League Divisional Series game against Texas.
"As we say around the building here, we're raising a franchise quarterback," Van Pelt said. "It's not just on the field, it's off the field, it's how to prepare, it's how to be in (the) community, it's how to take care of the locker room."
Besides their lack of experience, another potential cause for derailment of the Bucs' strong start is a lack of depth and weakness on both sides of the line.
They aren't running the ball well. Cadillac Williams is averaging only 2.6 yards per carry, although there are questions about whether the problem is mostly Williams or the line because no other back on the team gets anywhere near as many rushing attempts as he does.
The defense has generally played well since Morris assumed control of it after the Saints visited here on Nov. 22, 2009. The Bucs suffered a 38-7 loss, and Morris put himself in charge of the defense for the final six games of the season. He runs a scheme that plays to the strength of his talent and his coaching background -- the secondary, which is tied with Carolina for second in the league with nine interceptions.
But the Bucs rank 30th in the NFL in run defense. That isn't likely to be of great concern against the Saints' 31st-ranked rushing offense. What could very well be a major problem for Tampa Bay is that it has generated just four sacks. Although Saints quarterback Drew Brees isn't the dominant passer he was last year, he can still do considerable damage when he has time to throw.
"We have a tough division we're in," guard Davin Joseph said. "Our road ahead is not easy at all, and nothing's guaranteed. But we've managed to get off to a good start. We have a very young team and we're building confidence right now in our quarterback. We're building confidence amongst our offensive line. We're building confidence within our defense to give us turnovers, to sack the quarterback, to stop teams on third down.
"We've performed well in different situations where, you compare those to last year, we lost in those situations. Trying to come back at the end of a game. Trying to maintain a lead. Needing a turnover. Needing a touchdown. Needing a field goal. These are all things that every team runs upon. It's about either you're winning or losing them. And we're winning them right now."
The victory over the Bengals was an encouraging rebound from a 38-13 home loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers the week before. That game might have been an indication that the Buccaneers aren't quite ready to step into the class of an NFL heavyweight.
"The performance wasn't as bad as the score indicated from our football team," Dominik said. "I still think there were things we could certainly do a lot better, but last year we played the Giants and Jets here and got our butts kicked both games. I walked out of those games disappointed. I walked out of the Pittsburgh game more frustrated."
The Buccaneers clearly expect more from themselves. Morris' slogan for the season has been that it's a "Race to 10." The thinking is that 10 victories usually are enough to win a division championship and qualify for a playoff spot.
Still, there is an air of cautiousness. What the Buccaneers' administrators, coaches, and players privately remind themselves and each other is that the Denver Broncos were 6-0 last season before going 2-8 and falling out of postseason contention.
Of course, that might not be something that most outsiders believe should be all that big a concern for the Bucs. That is, the ones who are even aware that they're 3-1.
Morris wouldn't want it any other way.
"It's great for your young football team," he said. "Nobody knows us, nobody knows the young superstars that are going to emerge out of this crew. It's kind of like Dallas in '89. I don't want to sound too much like (he is comparing the Buccaneers to) a dynasty, but I'm just looking at successful, young teams that were built from the bottom up that went through a 1-15 season to a 3-13 season to the 8-8 season to, boom, a Super Bowl. And they built through the draft.
"We're trying to build a team around here that's being built for long-term winning. We're trying to remain consistent with that message. But at the same time, we're having success now, but we've got to be humble, we've got to be honest with ourselves, and we've got to get better."
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