What the Buccaneers did last year under coach Raheem Morris was simply amazing.
Turning a 4-2 start into a 10-game losing streak is almost unthinkable. There’s no other way to describe it than to say the Bucs simply gave up, losing the final five by an average of 23 points per game.
That it didn’t lead to a complete house-cleaning might be the most amazing part, as General Manager Mark Dominik hung on, and replaced Morris with hard-nosed Rutgers coach Greg Schiano.
Then Dominik went out and spent some free agency cash, and the Bucs have a new sense of hope to go with a new staff. Whether it works remains to be seen.
The Bucs have the potential to be explosive on offense, but all that potential is conditional upon quarterback Josh Freeman looking like Josh Freeman again.
If he plays the way he did in 2010 (25 touchdowns, six interceptions, 95.9 rating) rather than 2011 (16 touchdowns, 22 interceptions, 74.6 rating), the Bucs could have a solid set of personnel.
Adding Vincent Jackson on the first day of free agency (with a five-year, $55.5 million contract) gives them a legitimate deep threat at wide receiver, which they didn’t really have even when Keyshawn Johnson was the presumptive No. 1.
The run game also got an early boost, with the signing of former Saints guard Carl Nicks (five years, $47.5 million) and adding running back Doug Martin late in the first round. Pairing Martin and LeGarrette Blount gives them the opportunity to run well and often, which will make things much easier for Freeman.
If nothing else, that could shorten games, and keep the sore spot off the field.
Taken individually, there are good parts to work with for new defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan.
The problem is, collectively those parts stunk last year.
The Bucs allowed 494 points last year, the most in team history. They ranked last in the league in points allowed and rushing defense, a sure sign there wasn’t much resistance late.
Moving veteran Ronde Barber from corner to safety, and installing him next to rookie Mark Barron gives them an interesting tandem in the middle.
On paper, Aqib Talib and Eric Wright give them a good pair of corners, but both have shown signs of knuckle-headedness in their past, making you wonder how they’ll fit with Greg Schiano long-term.
Second-rounder Lavonte David has promise as a playmaker at linebacker, but he’s surrounded by a fairly ordinary cast.
Up front, Gerald McCoy has shown flashes, but the defensive tackle has never lived up to his draft status because of injuries, similar to Brian Price.
Adrian Clayborn is a good, solid defensive end, the kind you can build around, but losing Da’Quan Bowers to a torn Achilles casts doubt on where the pass rush is coming from.
Greg Schiano made an immediate imprint on his team, bringing a college-style structure to a team that sorely needed some kind of discipline.
That started with things like monitoring the temperature in meeting rooms, but creating an accountable environment will take more than that.
Releasing safety Tanard Jackson and trading disgruntled tight end Kellen Winslow were the first obvious moves. How he handles Eric Wright’s drunk driving arrest will be the next test of how Schiano steers through choppy waters.
But the way the Bucs played last year under Raheem Morris, a little more attention to detail was clearly needed.
If Schiano can maintain his edge, and keep his players from revolting, they have enough talent to make a significant turnaround.
As with Freeman, if wide receiver Mike Williams returns to his 2010 form, they should be OK at the position.
Williams caught the same 65 passes in 2011 as 2010, he just didn’t do nearly as much with them. His per-catch average of 14.8 as a rookie made him a legitimate weapon. At 11.9 last year, he was just kind of out there.
If he doesn’t revert, the Bucs have a bunch of guys who have given hints, but few sure things.
Preston Parker caught 40 balls last year and could be poised to make a move. You could win bar bets by knowing Dezmon Broscoe caught a team-high six touchdown passes last year, more than a third of the team total (17). Arrelious Benn has shown the ability to make big plays when he makes them (15.2 yards per catch in two seasons).
Even Tiquan Underwood, one of Greg Schiano’s guys from Rutgers, has a chance to do something here. He was on and off the Patriots roster last season, famously released before the Super Bowl, but has speed and could find a niche on a less-talented team.
It doesn’t help that the Bucs play in one of the most competitive divisions in the league, as the NFC South is annually difficult.
Atlanta and New Orleans are legitimate contenders for the division title, and Carolina has improved significantly.
And while the Bucs are among the teams that could really use a quick start to dispel some of last year’s problems, the first month of the season opens with a visit from the Panthers and trips to the defending champion Giants and the Cowboys.
Win a pair of those, and it becomes a lot easier for Schiano to sell his program at the pro level. Drop enough games to push the losing streak into the teens, and it becomes much tougher for him to play the tough-guy card.
The simple fact they were so bad last year means they would have to work to be worse, but there are reasons to believe they could get better.
But in the neighborhood they’re living in, they could clean up the yard and still be the worst house on the block.