To say the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were an awful football team last season would be putting it lightly. They were undisciplined, unprepared, and at times, appeared unable to find their, umm, rear-ends with both hands.
But that was then, and this is now.
Shortly after the conclusion of the 2011 season, Raheem Morris and staff were relieved of their duties, which if you ask some fans came about 10 weeks later than it should have.
Nevertheless, Greg Schiano was brought in to not only restore order, focus and fundamentals, but also a little faith with a frustrated and dissatisfied fanbase.
Money has been spent and players—both old and new—have been added. All of which not only equates to a change in attitude throughout the Tampa Bay community, but a change in perception throughout the football community.
And if all goes as planned, a change in the win column this season.
Vincent Jackson was one of three major Tampa Bay free-agent additions this spring.
If money truly talks, then what the Buccaneers committed themselves to on the first day of free agency is equivalent to screaming "CHA-CHING" from the highest mountain tops.
You may recall over the course of 24 hours, the Bucs signed receiver Vincent Jackson, guard Carl Nicks and cornerback Eric Wright to contracts totaling in excess of $140 million. This is an awful lot of money for three players but still not nearly as much as the Red Sox are paying Carl Crawford.
But I digress.
As I touched on in the opening, the signings were part of a larger, targeted maneuver designed to begin winning back their fans. It just so happens that it also greatly improved the team as well.
Jackson immediately gives the Buccaneers a legitimate No. 1 receiver and his presence should not only make Josh Freeman a better quarterback, but should also elevate the play of receiver Mike Williams and tight end Kellen Winslow, too.
The addition of Nicks solidifies the Tampa Bay offensive line and will allow Coach Schiano to follow through on his desire to establish the Buccaneers as a team who will run the ball on any play, any down and any situation.
It's worth noting that the Bucs finished with the 30th-ranked rushing offense last season, though I'd venture to say the addition of Nicks and a re-commitment to running the ball will improve those numbers in 2012.
By adding Wright, the Buccaneers addressed a need in their woeful secondary and provided a little depth and insurance with the uncertainty surrounding cornerback Aqib Talib and his pending criminal trial. Wright joins the Bucs after spending the 2011 season with Detroit, where he intercepted four passes for the Lions.
Now free-agency success does not guarantee success on the field (just ask the Redskins), but it does wonders for a disenfranchised fanbase, raising expectations and setting a tone throughout the locker room.
The Buccaneers entered last month's NFL draft with multiple needs across the field, but having just two picks inside the first two rounds only added to the level of uncertainty about their ability to add quality rookie prospects.
However, by the end of the second round, the Bucs had made three selections, thanks in large part to a few savvy deals made by general manager Mark Dominik—moves that prompted ESPN's draft guru Mel Kiper to say, "...I'm not sure any other team added as much early positive impact."
The players chosen—safety Mark Barron (seven), running back Doug Martin (31) and linebacker Lavonte David (58)—will all compete for starting roles this season, meaning in addition to the three free agents mentioned on the previous slide, the Buccaneers could begin the season with as many as six new starters on the field against Carolina in Week 1.
And judging by how awful the Bucs played last season, that may not be such a bad thing.
Traditionally, rookies symbolize the continuation of a franchise. That is, they act as the bridge from one generation to another. Around here, however, this rookie class feels different. This class symbolizes a breath of fresh air and a change in direction. This class conjures images of sold-out stadiums and meaningful December games.
But above all, they symbolize hope.
Oscar Wilde once said, "Experience is simply the name we give our mistakes." Which if true, makes the Buccaneers the most experienced team in the NFL.
All kidding aside, Tampa Bay more than took their fair share of lumps last season on its way to a 4-12 record and the firing of Raheem Morris.
The thing is, maybe all those losses weren't in vain. What if the Bucs won even while they lost?
Quarterback Josh Freeman is entering his fourth season, but is all of 24 years of age. The projected starting defensive line—Da'Quan Bowers, Gerald McCoy, Brian Price and Adrian Clayborn—have an average age of 23.
Presumptive middle linebacker Mason Foster appeared in all 16 games last season, but he too is only 23 years old. Receiver Mike Williams is 24 and running back LeGarrette Blount is 25.
So what do their ages have to do with any of it?
This was a young bunch last season. All of the above-mentioned players saw moderate to significant playing time in 2011. And while they felt the disappointment of defeat 12 times last season, they enter 2012 with that experience under their belt.
Because, let's face it, there is something to say about a team as young as the Bucs having endured such a painful lesson on the harsh realities of the NFL. The important thing heading into this season, however, is whether or not the new coaching staff of the Bucs is able to rekindle the sting of defeat and use it as a springboard for immediate and future success.
In essence, are Schiano and company ready to earn their coaching stripes?
Josh Freeman is the face of the franchise.
Collectively, the Buccaneers will only go as far as his right arm is able to take them. In 2010, Freeman flashed glimpses of his potential and gave Bucs fans several reasons to think of better days ahead by throwing for 3,400 yards and 25 touchdowns.
Then, 2011 came along, and Freeman found himself explaining away his erratic play on his way to throwing 22 interceptions.
2012 is a critically important year for Freeman for several reasons. For starters, coach Schiano has no allegiance to him. Meaning, if he doesn't see enough out of No. 5 this season to firmly believe that he's the long-term solution, what's keeping him from going a different route?
After all, coaches—like quarterbacks—are graded on wins and losses. Why would Schiano risk his future on a player he doesn't believe in?
Secondly, Freeman's contract balloons to nearly $10.5 million next season—the final season of his rookie contract. Hypothetically, if Freeman were to put together another season similar to last, the Bucs would then have a financial incentive to part ways as well. After all, if Schiano were interested in bringing in another quarterback, why would they pay Freeman that amount of money?
That said, I firmly believe Freeman will have a bounce-back year in 2012. For one, the addition of receiver Vincent Jackson will do wonders for the passing game as a whole, as too often last season, the receiving corps disappeared completely.
Furthermore, Schiano's commitment to establishing the run, coupled with the addition of rookie running back Doug Martin, should alleviate some of the burden from Freeman's shoulders and subsequently allow them to take calculated shots downfield.
This is a far cry from last season's apparent game plan—snap the ball, run around and throw it up for grabs.
The head coach of any team, in any sport, is looked upon as the leader—the person players go to for guidance and reporters go to for answers.
And if early impressions mean anything, the Bucs have got themselves one heck of a coach.
Greg Schiano has spoke of integrity and accountability—doing things the right way and making the Tampa Bay community proud of their team. Schiano laid out his vision for the team during his introductory press conference, saying, "...Our team will be built around a humble, unselfish, attitude and sacrifice."
Funny how four words can carry so much weight.
From the start, it was evident that Schiano and Raheem Morris were two completely different coaches with two completely different philosophies. The former hailing from the "old school," where stripes are earned and covering the details meant everything. While the latter appeared more interested in being a friend than a coach to his players.
And we all see how that ended.
Furthermore, Greg Schiano means more to this team than any player or executive because he has come to symbolize something bigger than football. That is, the belief that life is bigger—and more important, than the game. His decision to offer a contract to Eric LeGrand epitomizes who Schiano is as not only a coach, but as a man.
How the Bucs will fare on the field this season is anyone's guess at this point. But I say with complete confidence that they'll be in better shape physically and mentally than they've been in season's past.
And that's half the battle.