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Mentality isn't the Buccaneers' problem, talent is

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Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers lost to the New Orleans Saints on Sunday, dashing what little playoff hopes they had. Facing the league's worst defense, the Bucs could only put up 17 points. Facing a turnover-prone offense, the Bucs defense could not get a single takeaway. It was a day of miscues, penalties and execution errors -- the kind of game we've seen before, and the kind of loss that is very frustrating.

Understandably, we've seen the same old reactions. Suddenly, the fact that the Bucs have made massive strides this season doesn't seem to matter much. The Bucs are losers again. They're not mentally ready. It can't be that they just got outplayed by a team that isn't that much worse than they are, as happens to every team in the NFL. It can't be that they're a decent but inconsistent team that needs another year to gel. No, they clearly have severe issues and a bunch of players need to be replaced.

It is always curious to me how widely these mental criticisms vary. Lovie Smith is too stoic, and his teams play flat and without emotion. But then when Mike Evans reacts passionately and angrily to a poor pass interference call, people call him selfish. When Gerald McCoy and defensive line coach Joe Cullen get into a shouting match, they're undisciplined, or its evidence of McCoy's lack of passion -- while playing with a broken hand. The double standards are obvious, and so is the lack of rigor in these observations.

Here's the simple truth: the Bucs have talent and potential. At times they've played well this season. But barring one game against the Philadelphia Eagles, they have not been dominant. They haven't looked clearly the better team, and they were capable of losing a lot of the games they've won. This is a team that is good enough to sneak into the playoffs with some luck, but it is not good enough to expect a win every week. They don't have the talent to do so, and a day like yesterday is perfectly in line with what the Bucs have shown all season long: when they get a few breaks, they win. When they don't, they lose. It's not a step back so much as what they are.

The Bucs had a down day. It happens. No team plays its best football week in, week out. The Bucs have had struggles on both sides of the ball every week. That they had them now is disappointing, surely, but it is not unexpected, nor is it evidence of some massive mental issue. This is the NFL. Wins are hard, and the Bucs need more talent -- especially on defense.

So yes, we're back to the familiar refrain: next season. There's one difference this time, though. Something Bucs fans are struggling to deal with, I think: a franchise quarterback. This team isn't that far off from actually being a contender and despite the latest loss, they've shown a lot of promise. Next season carries far fewer qualifications this time.