A vast majority of the teams we've forked are riddled with issues, wandering lost and plagued by questions of what comes next. The Bucs don't fall into that realm. Had a handful of plays gone differently -- bitter moments reversed -- Tampa Bay would be the talk of the NFL.
There's talent here, but the fork is a mysterious entity. Cruel and unloving -- and here to take away the Bucs.
What went wrong
Tampa Bay's 2011 campaign ended with 10 consecutive losses, including seven defeats in which the Bucs allowed 30 or more points. Last year's defense imploded entirely.
The 2012 version was a feistier beast, but the pass defense cost this team victories. The Bucs rank dead last against the pass, and opposing quarterbacks sport a 92.4 passer rating against this defense. The Bucs have allowed an NFL-worst 4,051 yards through the air. No other team is close.
Losing cornerback Eric Wright to injury and a four-game suspension served as the knockout punch for a secondary already paper thin following the trade of Aqib Talib. Mystery men like E.J. Biggers and Leonard Johnson were asked to step in and slow down the likes of Matt Ryan and Peyton Manning. They had enough trouble as it is against Nick Foles on Sunday.
Schiano's decision to ship Talib to the New England Patriots was a bold move that sent a message to his players, but removing a potential top-five cornerback off the roster was a loss from which the Bucs never recovered. Tampa Bay has allowed almost 26 points per game since November. The defense shows no ability (or desire) to play press coverage, even in situations screaming for more aggressive scheming. The talented young offense can't keep up.
Sunday's painful loss to the Philadelphia Eagles was telling. The Bucs were in a fight for their playoff lives, but the secondary crumbled against a rookie quarterback. Foles torched Tampa Bay for 381 yards and two touchdowns. The Bucs had an 11-point lead with a little over seven minutes on the clock and couldn't hold down the fort. Fixing this secondary is top priority.
What went right
Now to the happy part.
Tampa Bay's offense was a joy to witness. The concerns about Josh Freeman after last year's down campaign have diminished. The four-year pro bloomed this season into a more decisive and instinctive quarterback.
The rebuilding of this offense started long before the season with the free-agent additions of wide receiver Vincent Jackson and Pro Bowl guard Carl Nicks. Jackson flipped the switch on the passing game, giving Freeman confidence to wing the ball deep -- and it worked. Freeman has been held to under 200 yards just three times all season and only once since Week 3. His 25 touchdown passes to eight interceptions don't even begin to tell the tale of how explosive he was compared to a season ago. He had seven games this season where he didn't turn the ball over through the air.
On the ground, Nicks brought veteran presence to an offensive line composed of mainly undrafted free agents. That's no knock on the bunch, because the Bucs' line has been sensational at stretches and helped give birth to the wonder of Doug Martin.
The rookie back was a revelation. Tampa Bay opened the season with questions of how Martin would jive with LeGarrette Blount. Chatter of a committee backfield gave way to the truth: Martin is not only a foundation back in this offense, he shows the potential to become a very special player. His downhill, bruising style masks his speed -- and he's valuable in the passing game, too. Schiano has found his man.
Let's give a head nod to Ronde Barber. We can't stand the Bucs' secondary, but the 37-year-old defensive back continues to play with fire from within. Meanwhile, rookie safety Mark Barron shows great promise.
Tampa Bay's ugly pass defense obscured a run defense that went from 32nd in the league in 2011 to No. 1 in 2012. That has a lot to do with coaching and a young front seven that continues to jell.
What still matters
Tampa Bay can be proud of what has been accomplished under Schiano in Year 1, but we're calling Sunday's loss the end of the road.
What changes are coming
Schiano has just begun tweaking this roster. He inherited a broken team; undisciplined and unprepared for NFL competition. Many wondered if Schiano could adjust to the pro game, but he has done an excellent job. We expect a heavy push to upgrade the secondary and fortify the offensive line, which ultimately suffered too many injuries this season, but the sweeping changes are over. That was last year.
These young Bucs will work to shore up weaknesses and weed out the players Schiano doesn't believe in. There's accountability now in Tampa Bay -- and a light up ahead.