TAMPA BAY — For a team that is supposed to be in transition, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have gone to the hurry-up offence in a big way.
In a year that was supposed to be all about development and growth, the Bucs, who were 3-13 in 2009, instead took full advantage of a soft schedule to arrive at their pivotal 12th game of the 2010 season with a 7-4 record.
They have fast-tracked into being a possible playoff contender thanks to the hard work and optimism of head coach Raheem Morris, whom many believed set the bar a bit high by shooting for a 10-win season.
With a victory Sunday over the front-running Atlanta Falcons, the Bucs would have a playoff berth directly in their sights.
The question is, have the Bucs undergone any kind of a mental reset now that they’ve moved quickly from a team in development to a team that is knocking on a playoff door?
“I think compared to last year, the bar was definitely raised initially,” veteran centre Jeff Faine said of the team’s goals outlined by coach Morris. “It was kind of raised from within. Our coach made some comments about the ‘Race to 10’ and us being the best team in the NFC and all that, but it’s something that internally everybody was just praying to try to get a little better. The maturation process of our young guys and the development of our young guys, our rookies has been the most important part of how we’re playing so well this year. I think that’s a big part of where our success is.”
Faine, 29, is enjoying his third year with the Bucs after spending two seasons with New Orleans and three with the Cleveland Browns. A former first-round draft pick by the Browns in 2003 (21st player taken overall), Faine, at 29, is the fourth-oldest player on the Bucs team and one of their offensive captains.
Wins and losses sometimes mask what a team has truly achieved and in the Bucs case, Faine sees areas of growth on which they can build for many seasons to come.
“Just look at the leadership,” Faine said. “If you’re looking for a specific, you can use Josh Freeman (their 22-year-old, second-year quarterback) as an example. It’s night and day regarding the type of player and type of person he is between last year and this year. We saw he had the raw abilities last year and raw skills, but he’s become the total package this year where he’s become a leader. He’s a locker-room guy that helps lead the team and he’s taken ownership of the team.
“It goes all the way down the line. Guys are doing their job and doing the things that are necessary for us to win.”
Teams that are winners all have an identity and a certain swagger. It stems from a successful past and the knowledge that they can pull it out when the going gets rough.
The Bucs despite their success to date, are still looking to create an identity.
“I think we’re still developing that,” Faine conceded. “That’s something that comes along with experience and we just don’t have a lot of experience on this team. So it’s something that’s still in development. It isn’t completely there yet but it is getting there. We are starting to realize that the playmakers are able to make plays in crunch time.
“But continuing to keep our composure, continuing to be able to rise up for the big games and stay calm and collected, it’s still a developing tool and skill that we have to get.”
Which is why Sunday’s game against the Falcons provides another big stepping stone. A victory over the top team in the NFC would shoot their confidence through the roof.
But if they fall short against Atlanta and when the season ends, are on the outside looking in as far as a playoff berth goes, does the season become a failure instead of being viewed as a great leap forward?
“I think outside of this organization, I don’t think it would be (viewed as a failure),” Faine said. “But within this organization and especially within this locker room, it would be a tremendous disappointment.
“We feel that we should be able to compete to get into the playoffs, especially with the start that we had. With the remaining schedule, we feel that we should be able to compete and have a chance to be there.
“So we have some unfinished business and we feel like we can compete and be there and finish out the season strong. But right now it would be a huge disappointment (if they missed out) in this locker room. A lot of people right now think we’re a success but that’s just not how we feel in here.”
On a team that’s gained so much so quickly it still wants more. It’s a positive sign.