TAMPA, Fla. — The reality came like a two-by-four straight to the chin to many, and by Monday morning, the words directed at Lovie Smith’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers remained sharp.
They were found in print. They were found in analysis online. They were found in social media. They were found in sports talk on local airwaves.
Frustration. Frustration. More frustration.
Tampa Bay’s 20-14 loss to the Carolina Panthers on Sunday at Raymond James Stadium was more than a letdown to those who bought into the belief that all the change since January, all the turns from a dismal 2013, would lead to immediate gains. This went deeper.
The result was a betrayal of expectations. It was like becoming excited for a blind date at a swanky restaurant, only to find the company across the table to be boring with fat pimples below both eyes.
The Bucs’ six-point loss doesn’t tell the whole story. For three quarters, quarterback Josh McCown was a mess, the defensive line was toothless and special teams didn’t do anything memorable. New-look Tampa Bay looked like an old problem that was no upgrade from the 4-12 group that came before.
Many expected more.
"I think everything we did wrong yesterday," Smith said, "it comes back to the head coach."
Smith’s honeymoon ended in the darkness around Raymond James Stadium on Sunday night, and this is no surprise. Fans and pundits crave results to chew on until they receive a fresh batch the following week, and in the win-or-face-heat NFL, the reaction to the Bucs’ Week 1 loss was predictable.
There are reasonable worries, but there’s some overreaction as well.
McCown likely will be better than his 183-yard passing, two-interception struggle, or else doubts about his future as a starter will increase soon. Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy likely will be better than his forgettable opener, or else Tampa Bay’s defense will never reach its potential.
All this serves as a reminder that it’s never wise to build up too much optimism for an unknown. Smith won the offseason because he represented a fresh beginning and his name wasn’t Greg Schiano. Most here were hungry for something, anything new.
But there was little evidence, other than a few preseason glimpses, to predict what Smith would deliver in his debut.
"For me, every decision I feel like should impact the game in some way," he said. "And the bottom line is we didn’t get our guys into position to make enough plays, and that starts with me."
Smith is a realist. He’s right when he says the Bucs lost to a proven opponent in the Panthers, who should compete for an NFC South title again. Still, it’s concerning that a backup quarterback (Derek Anderson) looked better than Smith’s hand-picked starter from free agency. There were few silver linings on a dark day.
The lasting lesson is Smith’s Bucs have a long way to go. He has lived ground-level challenges before, going 5-11 in his first season with the Chicago Bears in 2004 until making the playoffs the following year at 11-5.
A similar climb likely awaits him this year, despite the Bucs becoming a trendy pick among some to reach the playoffs. Unless major improvement happens on offense, it’s difficult to see Tampa Bay scoring enough points to become comfortable near the top of the NFC South standings. The defense should be strong, but it can only bend so much each week without breaking.
Expectations, meet reality.
"I can’t say ‘surprised,’" Smith said, when asked how surprised he was about the Bucs’ slow start. "You guys got to keep in mind, we were playing against a pretty good football team, and we’re just establishing who we are. It takes time sometimes. We would have liked to have been Super Bowl-ready our first game out. … We’re not there yet, but we’ll figure out how to win football games."
Still, it’s not encouraging to see how far that destination appears to be.
"Eventually, you find out exactly who you are and what you need to do to be successful," Smith said. "I just think at the end, we were at least on the road to that."
The path is well-traveled. The urgency to move fast to establish a winning identity should be understood.
After all, the transition from January dreams to September reality can be a hard smack to the face for everyone who believed from the start.