If nothing stung more bitterly for fans of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers than the one-sided, humiliating losses of the 2011 season, then new coach Greg Schiano has already made significant progress.
Despite a 2-4 record, this year's Bucs have played competitively throughout the young campaign. Indeed, each of the team's losses has come by a touchdown or less and the outcome of these games has boiled down to the final seconds of play.
This past Sunday proved no exception. Falling 35-28 to the New Orleans Saints, the club remained in contention throughout the contest, despite once surrendering 28 unanswered points. Limiting the wrath of Drew Brees in the 2nd half, the Bucs again possessed an opportunity for success in the final moments.
As the clock dwindled to zero on a make-or-break 4th down, Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman located Mike Williams for an apparent game-tying touchdown. Excitement was quickly tempered, however, since fortune again did not rest with the hard luck Buccaneers.
The score was disallowed, as Williams had stepped out of bounds prior to the catch. Despite being blatantly shoved by a Saints' defender, the illegal touching ruling went against the Bucs, like so many critical plays have unfolded negatively in the early season.
The Saints' game served as a perfect encapsulation of the initial experiences under Schiano. Stepping up his play, Freeman connected with new addition Vincent Jackson for 7 catches and a gaudy 216 yards. The 4th year quarterback arguably enjoyed the best performance of his career by throwing for a total of 420 yards and 3 touchdowns.
While the team's defense did no favors in a rocky 2nd quarter, the group eventually rose to the occasion. Brees only crossed the 50 yard line once during the 2nd half. If the game had reached overtime, the Bucs seemingly held momentum to claim a victory.
Yet, a series of untimely and unfortunate mistakes negated successes on both sides of the ball. Deep in their own territory, Freeman linked with Jackson for a 95 yard 3rd quarter strike. The perfectly timed pass allowed a clear path to the end-zone to tie the game. Nevertheless, in what became the longest play in franchise history, the veteran receiver was caught from behind by a hustling Malcolm Jenkins and forced out at the 1.
While disappointing, odds remained overwhelming that the drive would produce a touchdown. With the offensive line offering little push and LeGarrette Blount unable to penetrate the goal-line on 3 consecutive runs, the Bucs' offense managed to avoid the end-zone entirely.
4 plays later, the drive stalled. Schiano's club could not get 1 yard on the NFL's worst defense.
Similarly frustrating, the game winning touchdown for the Saints came on a play that never should have occurred. In their sole successful drive of the 2nd half, New Orleans was originally halted at the 34 yard line for a lengthy field goal attempt. However, a Buccaneers' 15 yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty gave the opposing team new life, which soon led to a Pierre Thomas touchdown. Of all things, the whistle was blown for interference with the snap count -- something rarely seen in NFL contests.
Despite many positives, such mistakes leave a lasting impression. Though the blowout losses of the Raheem Morris era appear removed, these narrow defeats produce an equal level of gut-wrenching heartache.
The Bucs played well enough to beat the New York Giants, Dallas Cowboys, Washington Redskins, and now the New Orleans Saints. Yet, in each case, the young team found a somewhat unique way to fall in defeat.
Whether on a disputed penalty, record-setting offensive production, a letdown on a last second drive, or a mental breakdown, the records shows that Schiano does not have Tampa Bay where it needs to be to succeed. With only a handful of veteran leaders, the team obviously needs to learn how to win close games.
However, it is equally indisputable that football has become more entertaining for Bucs' fans in 2012. Though the sting of defeat remains, definite progress has been made and the future looks bright.
It begins in just a few days, as a short week leads to a Thursday night match-up with the Minnesota Vikings on October 25 at 8:20 p.m.
Yahoo! Sports, TBO.com.
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Jeff Briscoe is a writer who covers sports for the Yahoo! Contributor Network. A loyal Tampa Bay Bucs fan, he co-hosts the Florida-based radio show, The Sports Train.