The youngriness of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers came crashing down like superheated ash on the city of Pompeii. A team that was talented enough to win 10 games in 2010 returned after the prolonged NFL lockout with no moves in free agency. They jumped to a 4-2 start, recording wins over division rivals New Orleans and Atlanta in the process.
Things appeared to be on their way for Raheem Morris' young pewter pirates but then the Bucs went over the pond to London and never came back (at least mentally).
By the end of the 10 consecutive losses, it was quite obvious the team quit on their coach. "Rah" had let the inmates run the asylum one too many times.
Things had to change at One Buccaneer Palace - from the very top with the Glazers to the equipment guy.
They certainly did, with only Mark Dominik and his front office staff escaping the wrath of ownership sweep. It's not hard to believe that Dom and company got that message as well.
To replace Morris, Dom looked for a no-nonsense gritty coach who was a builder, someone with a track record of taking terrible situations and turning them around. He wanted someone who could be the face of the franchise, could handle the media and provide leadership to an organization that so obviously lacked it.
Next, he had to convince ownership that while building it the Packers and Steelers way is certainly a good (and cheap) way to go - this was an unprecedented year in free agency - where top flight football players, some the best in their position, would be available. If ever there was an off-season to get off your wallet - this was the one.
The Glazers agreed and provided change.
But is it change we can believe in?
It began with the coaching search - a long arduous process that seemed to have no end. As other teams snapped up head coaches and coordinators, the Bucs were the chosen tribe of Israel, searching for the promised land. Thankfully, it didn't take them 40 years to find their head coach.
The process wasn't just about finding their man - it was also about self scouting, something the Bucs apparently weren't doing that good of a job of. Dominik stayed pat in the 2011 off-season because he believed in the talent he had amassed and was afraid that adding players in the August free agency free-for-all that occurred after the lockout would be too disruptive to the locker room. He felt leaders would emerge or continue to grow, the coaching staff was hitting it's stride and this team would compete hard for their man.
When it didn't happen, even Dominik had his moment of doubt. Did he overvalue the roster? So during the interview process he got a good inkling of just what others thought of the organization outside of Tampa Bay. It had to be eye opening for both the Glazers and their general manager.
Greg Schiano may have not had the NFL pedigree of some of the other candidates but he did have one thing upper management desperately craved - structure. Both Tony Dungy and Jon Gruden had their own version of structure and it led to many victories. Structure seemed to certainly be lacking under Raheem Morris.
Discipline had also disappeared and that was another trait Schiano brought to the program. With structure and discipline in place, as well as a strong positive image to project to the media - there was no doubt that this guy on the surface had the makings of a good coach.
Can he coach NFL players? It remains to be seen, but Dominik wanted to make sure he helped Schiano out by giving him as much NFL experience on his staff as he possibly could at this late stage. It was frustrating for the front office to get blocked from getting the guys they wanted, forcing them to drop into the college ranks to find guys who had coached in the NFL.
Schiano also brought a bunch of the guys he trusted from Rutgers to join him.
Dominik was still concerned with self scouting, though. So he brought in NFL veteran coach and talented evaluator Butch Davis to join the staff in an advisory role. Butch would focus on the Bucs. Where were they hurting, where are they undervalued, is player A salvageable or should he be sent to the scrap heap? Do we need an upgrade at this position?
Dominik had his own thoughts, but he wanted an extra couple eyes to confirm or counteract what he was seeing.
The staff Schiano, Dominik and Davis assembled was an interesting blend of college and NFL coaching experience.
You could see the Tom Coughlin influences on Schiano's decisions, as Giants quarterback coach Mike Sullivan took the Offensive Coordinator position. The Defensive coordinator was Bill Sheridan, former Giants D.C.
Schiano's vision of the Bucs was very Giant-like. With friends and mentors like multi-Super Bowl winners like Coughlin and Patriots coach Bill Belicheck, you have to like where Schiano was going philosophy-wise.
Still, fans cast a skeptical eye on the front office. After all, this team has always shopped at Wal-Mart, not Tiffany's when it came to free agency.
The Bucs started by taking care of their own house - re-signing Jeremy Zuttah, tendering Michael Bennett and Demar Dotson while applying the franchise tag to Connor Barth.
Free Agency opened last week and the Bucs wasted no time, signing wide receiver Vincent Jackson, guard Carl Nicks and DB Eric Wright to a combine $140 million dollars.
The entire Buccaneer organization has changed from top to bottom. Still, the query of this article is are they better for it?
First, let's look at the coaching staff and front office.
Front Office and Coaching
No one really knows what kind of NFL coach Greg Schiano will make. History laughs in the face of college coaches making the transition to the NFL. Schiano, though, has been regarded in NFL circles as an NFL coach who has been applying his wares in college.
The Glazers and Dom took no chances, trying to surround Schiano with as much league experience as could be possibly garnered.
Its a situation that is so contrary to that of Raheem Morris, who was shoved into the big chair and told, "Here kid, you've got to clean this roster of Jon Gruden's vets and try to win with youth."
Morris wasn't ready. He had no head coaching experience anywhere. Schiano certainly has.
The organization certainly can't be hurt by having another set of eyes in Butch Davis.
Talent-wise - are the Bucs better off?
Tampa Bay released veteran center Jeff Faine and DT Albert Haynesworth. They also didn't re-sign QB Josh Johnson, RB Earnest Graham, WR Michael Spurlock, OT James Lee, DT Jovan Haye, LB Geno Hayes, S Sean Jones, CB Elbert Mack or S Corey Lynch. In addition, they didn't tender RFA RB Kregg Lumpkin, making him unrestricted.
Tampa Bay did extend an offer to veteran CB Ronde Barber, but he's contemplating retirement.
They've added QB Dan Orlovsky and TE Chase Coffman in addition to the big three.
Vincent Jackson is definitely a significant upgrade at WR. Tampa Bay had no consistent deep threats at wide out and WR Mike Williams didn't handle being "the number one" as the team had hoped. If Sullivan devises his offense as most believe (using the Giants playbook as his base), that offense focuses on a physical running game and getting the ball outside to receivers. It minimizes the use of the tight end (not good news for Kellen Winslow, Jr and possibly a reason why Tampa Bay has been rumored to have placed him on the trading block).
Jackson will help Williams and Regus Benn see less double-teams, allowing both wide outs to slot into their workload. He'll also allow the Bucs to take advantage of Freeman's above average arm strength down the field, opening up for more big plays like we saw in 2010.
Carl Nicks is arguably the best guard in the league. An All-Pro and Pro Bowl player, he comes to strengthen the middle of the Tampa Bay line that saw too much penetration in 2011. With Zuttah sliding over to Center, the entire interior of the line is made up of beefy, road grading nastiness that can only help LeGarrette Blount and whomever the Bucs bring in to team with him.
Tampa Bay signed Eric Wright to help stabilize their leaky secondary. The Bucs corners had two major deficiencies in 2011. They had terrible technique in supporting the run and they gave up way too many big plays in the passing game. Wright excels at tackling and doesn't give up a lot of big pass plays against him. He's not Revis by any stretch of the imagination, but he's a solid corner who can play man and can slip inside in nickel situations.
If Barber elects to return for one more season and Aquib Talib avoids suspension (and the long arm of the Texas law), it could give the Bucs a nice trio in the secondary to work with.
If Barber retires and/or Talib can't win his court case (inside the Texas courtroom or outside with Czar Goodell), Wright can at least take one corner spot off the needs list.
Some have called the trio the "2012 Dream team". They're not that. However they do strengthen the Bucs in three areas they needed it the most, especially for the version of offense and defense they plan to run.
Mark Dominik has said the focus has shifted to the draft and they will continue to "monitor" free agency. Well, the Bucs can't be done yet.
They need a middle linebacker. Yes, I know, Dom said they're fine at MLB with Mason Foster, but I think that was just the shot over the bow of agents for guys like Stephen Tulloch and Curtis Lofton, who obviously have an inflated opinion of their market worth. Come down in price, boys. The Bucs will do something there but will wait until the market has properly settled. They want a physical, veteran leader orchestrating the defense in 2012.
They need another corner as Aquib insurance. It will become even more of a need if Barber opts to retire. This might be addressed early in the draft but getting another veteran certainly wouldn't hurt.
They need a strong safety. The Bucs might look to promote from within from the likes of Larry Asante and Ahmad Black but I think they should bring in some competition.
They need a starting running back. I thought it was Blount, but watching him toward the end of 2011, I understand now why the Bucs coaching staff was so hesitant to put him in every down and we had to be subjected to the nothingness that is Kregg Lumpkin. He is a mean, physical power runner in the Brandon Jacobs mold but Jacobs had Ahmad Bradshaw taking the load of carries.
Could it be Trent Richardson? Maybe, I've never been crazy about taking running backs in the first round because of their shelf-life. Richardson, though, is said to be the best back to come out since Adrian Peterson. The Bucs passed on Peterson for the late Gaines Adams. Can they afford to make that type of mistake again?
If the Bucs do decide to replace Kellen Winslow, they'll need another blocking tight end.
Tampa Bay also needs another strong side backer to challenge Quincy Black and make him earn his massive paycheck.
With all that said, as we sit here before the draft with no further free agency moves in sight - are the Bucs better today than they were when they got debacled in Atlanta New Year's day?
Yes, they most certainly are on offense. Defensively - it's still a big concern and there's much more work to be done. Perhaps the changes in the front office and coaching staff can pull the talent out of the players currently on the roster that the previous regime simply couldn't.
I continue to stand by my statement that the 2011 Buccaneers were an 8-8 football team that quit on their coach.
But you know what old Bill Parcells used to say, "You are what your record says you are."
I say the Bucs are significantly better than a 4-12 football team today.