For an NFL team to win December, it first has to win March.
For an NFL team to flourish in September, it first has to survive in April.
It is the off-season planting, those months of practicing plays and running drills far from the crowd. It is an investment in the season to come. It does not turn average players into very good ones; but it helps to put a stamp on the season to come.
These are the sleepy months, the off-season months where no one really pays attention. Oh, there is the draft and all the arguments over offensive guards fans have never watched play.
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There is free agency, where a lot of money is paid for the illusion of hope. There are minicamps where no one can see the players sweat. But mainly, the off-season is a team's work in the background.
Still, there is something to the off-season. It is when coaches are fired. It's when draft picks are made. It is when general managers decide how many of the owners' millions will be spent in the name of free agents. It is bonding, and coaching, and planning. It is hiring, and evaluating, and orchestrating. It isn't winning, but it is preparing to win. The good teams prosper when you aren't looking; the bad teams just prepare for their fates.
The off-season? That's when a team drafts Booker Reese. That's when a team doesn't sign Bo Jackson. That's when a team hires Leeman Bennett. The off-season? That's Eric Curry's time, and Charles McRae's, and Kenyatta Walker's.
On the other hand, it's when it drafts Hall of Famers. It's when it adds Brad Johnson and Simeon Rice. It has everything to do with the direction of a franchise.
This year? It seems the Bucs have done well with Noah Spence and Vernon Hargreaves and Robert Ayers and Brett Grimes It seems like Mike Smith was a good idea. It seems, frankly, that dumping former coach Lovie Smith was a positive. Of course, most of us were fooled in 2014, and those free agents should be driving clown cars.
Here we are, then. Six off-seasons in which the Bucs prospered, and six in which they did not.
1. 1976: Okay, the NFL didn't do the Bucs any favors with an expansion draft filled with plumbers and construction workers. The Bucs didn't help by trading for Steve Spurrier, who never won a game. But for the first time, there was NFL football, sort of. And the Bucs did draft Lee Roy Selmon, who went a long way toward getting the Bucs into the playoffs quickly. Bottom line: Is bad football better than none at all? Barely.
2. 1995: The Bucs built their foundation with the drafting of Hall of Famers Warren Sapp and Derrick Brooks. Malcolm Glazer bought the team in '95, which meant Hugh Culverhouse couldn't mess things up anymore.
3. 1996: Tampa Bay saved the Bucs when it passed the investment tax, even though the team hadn't particularly convinced anyone on the field that it should. The Bucs also hired head coach Tony Dungy, who signed defensive coordintor Monte Kiffin.
4. 2001: Teams need a boost to get over the top. The Bucs got that when they found their quarterback (Brad Johnson, who was better down the stretch than he gets credit for being) and their pass rusher (Simeon Rice, who was unblockable).
5. 2002: For a brief moment, it all clicked for the Bucs after they hired Jon Gruden as head coach. No, he wasn't good for the long haul; too many players got old. But for that one season, he was the perfect burst of energy. The team added Keenan McCardell and Joe Jurivicious as free agents.
6. 2016: If he's right on the players, it's hard to quibble with the way new coach Dirk Koetter has addressed his roster. He added two corners, two defensive ends and, yes, a kicker. He has a new defensive coordinator in Mike Smith. He has a new energy with young quarterback Jameis Winston. Dare we hope?
1. 2014: Even before Lovie Smith coached his first game (a loss), he was off on the wrong track. After a year in his basement evaluating, Smith signed Michael Johnson, Anthony Collins, Josh McCown, Alterraun Verner, Mike Johnson and other end-of-the-roster players, costing his owners millions. It didn't work.
2. 2013: The last stand of Greg Schiano was particularly homely. Schiano was fed up with the tardiness of quarterback Josh Freeman during the off-season. There was the outbreak of MRSA in the team dressing rooms, which cost them guard Carl Nicks and kicker Lawrence Tynes. The team traded its No. 1 pick for Darrelle Revis, who was still hobbling. The Bucs never had a chance.
3. 1982: The Bucs meant to draft Booker Reese, which would have at least been a normal-sized mistake. But they botched the selection, then traded the next year's No. 1 (which could have been Dan Marino) for Reese. The Bucs had entered their bad years.
4. 1986: The Bucs failed to sign No. 1 draft pick Bo Jackson, to start with. In the off-season between two-win seasons by Leeman Bennett, that seems harsh enough.
5. 2004: In free agency, the Bucs signed Todd Steussie, Charlie Garner and Darrell Russell. Ouch. The team also signed Bruce Allen as general manager. Double ouch.
6. 1991: In '91, the Bucs hired Phil Williamson as coach, Lon Krueger as general manager and Gay Culverhouse as team president. There has probably never been worse leadership on an NFL team. No wonder the team drafted Keith McCants.