Tuesday, 3 a.m.
This is better. Really, it is.
Yes, the Bucs have been to familiar terrain before. They are 6-5; last year, they were 6-6. Last year, the teams they beat had a total of 29 wins; same thing this year. Last year, they had won three out of four. This year, they've won three straight.
Somehow, this feels better. Last year felt like another in a series of bad seasons; this year feels like the start of a decent run. Last year, the Bucs were a disappointing team beating up other disappointments; This year, they've beaten two of the best in the NFL in back-to-back weekends.
Last year, the team stepped into a hole and lost four in a row, three to sub-.500 teams. By the time it came out, Lovie Smith was fired.
This year, this is the question: Can they avoid the hole?
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It takes more than first-down markers to measure progress in the NFL. But do you ever remember, at any point, even at 6-6, believing that the Bucs were a bona fide playoff team? This year, well, the last two weeks will make you think about it.
Check out Jameis Winston, if you want. His early-season interceptions have kept his rating down, but it's still a shade over four points higher than a year ago. His touchdowns have increased by five. His competition percentage is three points higher.
Check out Mike Evans, if you want. He has caught 19 more passes for 170 more yards and seven more touchdowns (so far). He's even earned a nickname with Winston; former Bucs' quarterback Chris Simms is calling the two “Siegfried and Roy,” only with less hair-tinting.
How about Cameron Brate? He has 18 more receptions for 154 yards.
Adam Humphries? He has 14 more catches for 188 yards.
The Bucs were first in most penalties last year. They're 11th this year.
Winston is only 20th among quarterbacks with passes dropped.
And that's the thing. With these Bucs, you can see players getting better. Noah Spence is miles ahead of where he was. Vernon Hargreaves, too. The safety play has tightened up the last couple of weeks. Roberto Aguayo (his miss Sunday not-withstanding) has been an NFL kicker lately. Bryan Anger has been a superb punter.
Remember the 2010 season, when the Bucs won 10 games. Nine of them were against teams with losing records. A lot of people saw through that team. This one is harder.
Consider the size of the last two wins. That doesn't happen often. By nature, the NFL is a league of teams beating up lesser teams. Very few teams -- even the great ones -- win powerful match-ups often.
When is the last time the Bucs won two games of this impact? Maybe it was the playoffs after the 2002 season, when they beat Philadelphia and Oakland back-to-back. True, the stakes were higher then. But the bottom line is that it's been a lot of years.
Last year, you didn't sense this out of the young players. The Bucs' pass coverage still played at the depth of punt coverage. It felt as if the Bucs were playing a jayvee schedule, beating this scrub quarterback and losing to that one.
Oh, there has been some backward movement. Doug Martin's injuries have kept him from having the same kind of impact. Vincent Jackson's age and injuries have kept him from having any kind at all. You can still grimace over losing to St. Louis, when the team should have won, and the Raiders, where they could have.
How does this season end up? Who knows? Not long ago, I would have thought the last five opponents — the Chargers, the Saints twice, the Cowboys and the Panthers – would all be favored over the Bucs. I don't feel that way after the last two weeks. San Diego is a hard place to play, but only Dallas – beaten by the Bucs last year — will be a clear favorite.
That doesn't guarantee anything, of course. The schedule could still catch up with the Bucs.
But with every successful stand, with every scoring pass, it feels like there is something that matters going on here.
No, they are not a finished product. On the other hand, the season is 11 games old, and they aren't finished.
It's a start.