The off-season is turning down that final stretch. It's the part of the year that looks so close, but will probably feel as if it's lasting a lifetime. There's less than 3 weeks until the Buccaneers take the field for training camp and the start of the 2016 season, and quite frankly, I don't mind how long this stretch feels because it finally feels good again.
I may run this very site you're on right now, or host a Bucs podcast with Luke Easterling, or have even been a member of the Tampa Bay media for more than 15 years, but before all of that, I was born at St. Joseph's Women's Hospital next to the new One Buc Place, spent my entire life in the Tampa Bay area, and have been a fan of the Buccaneers during that entire span. There was a big stretch of time where you would have been hard-pressed to find a more dedicated, passionate, and knowledgeable fan than I was.
Starting with the firing of Jon Gruden, and followed by the moronic hiring of Raheem Morris, that passion that I had burning inside started to taper itself. Whether you believe Gruden deserved to be fired or not, who fires your franchise's only Super Bowl winning coach to replace him with someone who has never even been a coordinator? Predictably, Raheem Morris was fired 3 years later only to be replaced with a coach from the Big East Conference who had a mediocre .500 record. You honestly couldn't have drawn up a more ridiculous scenario looking back with hindsight. To top it off, the Bucs replaced that mediocre college coach they hired after 2 years with a mediocre NFL coach who had clearly lost all sense of how to win at the NFL level. Good luck at Illinois.
It was gut-punch after gut-punch. Off-seasons had become way more interesting than the regular seasons ever could be during these dark days for the Buccaneers' franchise. Seeing Josh Freeman go from jolly Fat Albert to a failed attempt at a runway model, the Bucs failed attempt at trying to create their "No Fly Zone" with key signings/trades involving Darrelle Revis and Dashon Goldson, or just the overall massive waste of money and draft picks in failed additions was enough to make any true fan sick in what their favorite team had become. It's a 6-year hole the Bucs and the Glazers have dug for themselves. When something becomes that deep, it's tough to climb out in quick fashion.
Now that I have given the background, I'm proud to say that this has been the absolute most enjoyable off-season covering the Bucs as both a member of the media and as a fan in quite some time. Ironically, it's also been among the quietest off-seasons in recollection. Bucs GM Jason Licht refrained from headline making and big splashes in free agency, and in the draft, Licht again held back from bold and noteworthy moves to select players he felt could make key contributions to the team now, and for the next 5, 7, or 10 years...and yes, this includes one of the best kickers in college football history.
Looking back, this was one of the most boring and predictable off-seasons for the Bucs in recent memory, and it was just what the doctor ordered!
Heading into free agency, the two names that likely made the most sense for the Bucs were Brent Grimes and Robert Ayers, and both were linked to the team. Grimes was an easy one due to the past relationship he had with new Bucs defensive coordinator Mike Smith. Ayers was considered in that 2nd tier of defensive ends, not a splash player, but a solid rotational guy. Both ended up with the organization, and both have been tremendous leaders during the off-season program for the Bucs' new defense.
If free agency wasn't going to grab the headlines, surely the draft would, right? Former Gators CB, and Tampa's own, Vernon Hargreaves had been linked to the Bucs in 90% of mock drafts starting back at the end of the NFL season, a trend that continued all the way up to draft day. The Bucs made Hargreaves their first round pick without hesitation before drafting another player they had been linked heavily to in the 2nd round when they selected DE Noah Spence.
It was predictable move after predictable move, and for some reason I had a smile on my face and enjoyed every moment of it.
For the first time in a very long time, the Buccaneers were not considered one of the big winners of the off-season. Considering the fact that those "winning off-seasons" by the organization in previous years had led to some of the worst records in the Bucs' pathetic history, it was clear that winning an off-season had very little relevance.
The Bucs needed a direction, they needed energy, they needed professionalism, they needed true leadership, and they needed to remove the cancer of losing that had spread so rapidly throughout the organization over the past 6 years. I believe all of these needs were met and exceeded.
Digging out of the hole they have dug for themselves likely won't completely happen in one off-season or one full calendar year, but the process has begun. There 's a flicker of light inside of me wanting to burn again in a big way, and I believe I speak for many other Bucs' fans who feel that same way. We want to get caught up in the hype, excitement, and mission again. We need to believe though. We haven't believed in this franchise for the past 6 seasons. Earning our trust and belief will be the gasoline this little flicker needs to grow into a massive flame yet again.
Bucs training camp starts in less than 3 weeks. For the first time in a very long time, I'm genuinely excited. It's now on the organization to make sure I continue to feel this way, which will be their toughest challenge due to that recent history weighing so heavily on all of our minds and our hearts.
Here's hoping for that trust. Here's hoping to believe once again. Most of all, here's hoping that the Bucs have finally become a franchise we can all be proud of once again.
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