Bucs gain national relevance as potential landing spot for No. 1 pick
TAMPA, Fla. -- It has taken three months, 11 losses, two starting quarterbacks, one of the NFL's worst offenses and a fall to the bottom of the NFL's sorriest division in recent memory, but the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have accomplished Lovie Smith's wish and become relevant.
If the season ended Sunday night, they would have held the draft's top pick.
Take a bow in your mud puddle, Bucs. Savor the attention however it comes.
A 17-point drubbing by the Detroit Lions, coupled with the Oakland Raiders rising from their ash-pit to beat the San Francisco 49ers, elevated Tampa Bay to the draft's top slot with three games to play. Thanks to strength of schedule, the Bucs hold a slight edge over the Tennessee Titans (.488 to .490) and four other 2-11 teams in a race that has started to gain fame throughout the Internet as the "Suck for a Duck" campaign.
This is what Tampa Bay's season has devolved into for some fans, tracking the likes of the Titans, Raiders, New York Jets and Jacksonville Jaguars in a limp to the finish. The crawl for the top pick goes beyond the question of whether the Bucs will actually take Marcus Mariota if they secure the position -- tapping an offensive tackle or trading the pick to build depth also are options -- but the possibility of "winning" the No. 1 spot speaks to how far gone this season has become.
"This week is a little bit different for us. There's no Destination: Phoenix, anything like that," Smith said Monday. "I know last week it was pretty much the same situation. Again, different mind-set as far as all that (the playoffs) being off the table. Now, it's about a three-game season for us."
It's worth recalling how ridiculous the thought of such a fall would have been at the year's start. Back in January, when Smith entered One Buc Place with momentum from widespread public support, few reasonable observers expected the Tony Dungy disciple to turn a 4-12 team from 2013 into a sudden playoff contender.
There were too many holes, many of which Smith and general manager Jason Licht tried to patch in free agency. There were too many perceived weaknesses throughout the roster, many of which have been amplified in a swift and stunning decline to the NFL's cellar.
A 2-11 record would have been beyond comprehension in those early hours, in part because of Smith never lived worse than a 5-11 campaign in his nine seasons with the Chicago Bears, in part because it would have been hard to imagine the veteran coach being responsible for such a tire fire.
Yet thanks to twists of fate, the Bucs are on the cusp of entering the national conversation for reasons they never would have imagined when Smith's presence meant new hope and a fresh beginning.
Embrace the stink.
Closing the deal would be the best possible outcome for a starved franchise. Much of this season has passed like a whisper in a stiff wind to those outside the Tampa Bay area, most of the country's lone impression of the Bucs a 56-14 embarrassment on national television to the Atlanta Falcons in Week 3. This is a second chance at life that moves the needle from sea to shining sea.
Claiming the final prize won't be easy, and the Bucs don't control their own destiny. Of course, losing out to the Carolina Panthers, Green Bay Packers and New Orleans Saints will help. But Tampa Bay must hope that a decimal-point battle in the strength-of-schedule race breaks their way if the Titans, their stiffest competition, lose out as well.
No hanging chads will be involved, but this outcome may be too close to call.
Bottom line: Any buzz is good buzz, even if it comes with a stench. The initial plan to push for NFC South supremacy and reach the playoffs for the first time since after the 2007 season didn't pan out, so what's immoral about pulling to secure the top pick?
Nothing at all.
In fact, winning the top slot would mean a rare franchise milestone, even for a franchise familiar with losing like Tampa Bay. The Bucs took Vinny Testaverde the last time they selected first overall, in 1987. They have tapped four players at the No. 1 spot since their inception in 1976, including the infamous Bo Jackson pick in 1986.
There would be interest, if nothing else. National eyes would turn to Tampa. The Bucs would blend into the background no more.
"Life takes you on different turns," Smith said. "But they're temporary from what I've found. And this bad taste in our mouth will be there a little bit longer. But it eventually will get out of our mouth."
Yes, this turn toward the bottom of the NFC South wasn't expected. The season has disappointed beyond the imagination of most except maybe the most hardened cynics. To most outside southwest Florida, the Bucs are an apparition as the New England Patriots, Denver Broncos and Dallas Cowboys dominate the country's NFL discussion.
It's not the way Smith drew it up, but the Bucs can claim their spot in the national limelight if they stay in line to secure the top pick.
Enjoy the lift from irrelevance however it happens. It's better to become meaningful late than never at all.