Laugh if you will. Snicker if you must. But for a moment, at least ponder the question before rushing to a preconceived answer.
Can the Tampa Bay Buccaneers win the NFC South in 2012?
A month ago the question may not have even warranted the thought, but given the roster moves they made and the attitudes they've changed, is the question really as inane as originally thought?
Sure, the team was wretched and unbearable and gave little reason to watch most Sundays last season. They had almost as many shrugged shoulders come Monday as missed tackles on Sunday, which is by and large the reason Raheem Morris is now coaching defensive backs in D.C.
But if history has taught us anything, it's that the NFC South is as unpredictable a division as you'll find in the NFL. Since its formation in 2002, the same team has never won the division in consecutive seasons. Furthermore, five times in that span the team that finished in last place the season prior won the division the very next season.
And where did the Bucs finish last season?
You've got it. Last place.
Now, aside from history, there are other factors in play within the division that may just give the Bucs an opportunity to sneak in and retake the division in 2012.
For starters, the reigning division champion New Orleans Saints will feel the effects of the "Bountygate" scandal throughout the season. Head coach Sean Payton has been suspended by commissioner Roger Goodell for the entire upcoming season. Even if Goodell lessens the suspension, Payton will nevertheless miss significant time. Then there are the possible suspensions of multiple Saints players that could potentially hinder New Orleans' ability to field a competitive team.
The Carolina Panthers were carried on the shoulders of their rookie quarterback Cam Newton last season, but like many young signal callers before him, there is a real chance of Newton and the Panthers enduring a sophomore slump. NFL defenses are quick to adapt and what may have worked for the Carolina offense last season may not work for them this season.
Lastly, the Atlanta Falcons are about as consistent of a team as the NFC South has had of late, having finished in either first or second place for four consecutive seasons. Quarterback Matt Ryan is entering his fifth season, but he will have to start winning meaningful games if he is to live up to his nickname of "Matty Ice." Unless, of course, he wants to earn the more appropriate nickname of "Matty Romo."
If nothing else, the hiring of Greg Schiano signals the beginning of a new era for Tampa Bay and the end of an error, err era, where swagger seemed more important than discipline and fundamentals were seemingly sacrificed for highlight reels.
Yes, this season looks brighter not because the Buccaneers finally spent dollars and cents on free agents, but because the front office finally started applying football sense by doing so. General manager Mark Dominik said so himself: "I think we're tired of rebuilding here. That's not who we're trying to be. We want to be the best team we can be in 2012, and we know that these guys can help us become that."
Which brings us back to the question at hand: Can the Tampa Bay Buccaneers win the NFC South in 2012?
It sure seems a lot more probable than a few months ago.
And that's all most fans are asking for.