TAMPA, Fla. -- If you scoured the stands of Raymond James Stadium on any game day over the past few seasons, you would have seen more replica jerseys for guys like Derrick Brooks, Mike Alstott, John Lynch and Warren Sapp than any of the current Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
If you looked in those same stands, you also would have seen a lot of empty seats. The past 10 regular-season home games (all eight last year and the first two this season) have not been sellouts.
Is this a fan base living in the past?
It’s not quite that simple. In fact, things are on the cusp of changing. When the Buccaneers host the Indianapolis Colts on "Monday Night Football," the game will be sold out. So an entire nation will have a chance to view the Buccaneers, who have been in the NFL’s version of the witness-protection program even in their own backyard.
The past 10 home games haven’t been shown on local television, and even fans who go to the games haven’t really had a chance to get to know the NFL’s youngest team (25.17 years was the average age of the opening-day roster) like they knew Brooks, Alstott, Lynch and Sapp.
“It’s a team I want our town to fall back in love with,’’ Tampa Bay general manager Mark Dominik said.
The Bucs went 10-6 last season and are off to a 2-1 start this year, but the speed-dating process really could kick in with the national stage. Once fans really get a look at the Bucs, they could fall in love. Some fans don’t know it yet, but there’s a lot to like about the Bucs.
Let’s take a look:
The understated franchise quarterback. Other than cornerback Ronde Barber, the lone holdover from the Jon Gruden/Tony Dungy era, Josh Freeman is the most-well-known Buccaneer. That’s simply because he’s the quarterback, but fans haven’t totally embraced him. They should, because he’s the first true franchise quarterback this team has had at least since Doug Williams, and you could debate whether Williams was around long enough to be considered a franchise quarterback.
Freeman’s physically gifted and already has shown a knack for leading fourth-quarter comebacks. He comes across as a bit shy and soft-spoken in group interviews. But when Freeman, 23, was leading players-only workouts during the lockout, you could easily spot rare leadership skills and more personality than he displays in public.
In the Atlanta game, Freeman stepped outside himself a bit, flapping his wings in what could be interpreted as an imitation of the Falcons’ “Dirty Bird’’ celebration.
“It was good to see him come out of his shell a little bit,’’ running back/fullback Earnest Graham said.
The gregarious head coach. Public displays of emotion aren’t lacking when it comes to Raheem Morris. The guy can talk, sometimes a little more than he should. With the possible exception of Rex Ryan, Morris might have the most entertaining news conferences of any NFL coach. But following Gruden -- who will be in the “Monday Night Football’’ broadcast booth -- and Dungy is not an easy task.
Gruden won a Super Bowl, and Dungy changed the direction of the franchise. Fans still aren’t quite sure what to make of Morris, who remains the league’s youngest head coach at 35. Morris has more public charm than Dungy and Gruden did as coaches. He just needs to keep winning.
The completely unknown portion of "the triplets." When the Bucs started winning last season, that’s the nickname (borrowed from when the Dallas Cowboys had Troy Aikman, Michael Irvin and Emmitt Smith) that was given to Freeman, receiver Mike Williams and running back LeGarrette Blount. Williams and Blount were rookies last year, and both made good first impressions on the field. Williams instantly became Tampa Bay’s No. 1 receiver, and by midseason, Blount had replaced Cadillac Williams as the feature back. Still, there’s been a little apprehension from fans about both of them, and that goes back to their college days.
Blount is most famous for punching an opponent at the end of a game, and Williams was labeled as a "quitter" for leaving the Syracuse football team in his last year of college. But if you get to know them, you’ll see that labels can be deceiving. Williams is the anti-diva wide receiver. He comes across as quiet and humble.
Blount’s a punishing runner on the field, but is gentle off it. When he made his pre-draft visit to One Buccaneer Place, Blount ate his lunch and then went into the kitchen to thank every member of the staff. After last week’s victory in Atlanta, Blount sat in the locker room an hour after the game and told a staff member, "I don’t want to go home."
The big investments on the defensive line. In the past two years, the Bucs have used four draft picks in the first two rounds on defensive linemen. They brought in defensive tackles Gerald McCoy and Brian Price last year and defensive ends Adrian Clayborn and Da'Quan Bowers this year. We’re only starting to see what they can do. Price and McCoy both got hurt as rookies. They’re starting this year, along with Clayborn, and there’s a lot to like.
Price is quiet on the surface, but there’s a depth to him. He’s coming off a rare surgery in which doctors inserted screws into his pelvis, and he's showing signs he can really play. McCoy’s had a gregarious personality from the start, but we’re still waiting to see big results. Clayborn’s outgoing like McCoy and already has made some plays. If this unit can continue growing, the Bucs could have a very good defensive line for a long time.
The new “quarterback’’ of the defense. A lot of fans were upset in the offseason when the Bucs let middle linebacker Barrett Ruud, another holdover from the Gruden days, walk via free agency. They should start getting over that, because third-round draft pick Mason Foster is showing signs he can make more big plays than Ruud ever did. The Bucs were a little hesitant to put too much on Foster right away and started the season by letting outside linebacker Quincy Black wear the radio helmet and call the defensive plays.
By his third career start, Foster had taken on those roles. It might not have been a coincidence that the Bucs went out and had their best defensive performance since the days when Monte Kiffin was running the defense for Gruden.
The Bucs once were beloved by their fans. There’s no reason they can’t be that way again. The parts are in place. The world just needs a chance to get to see and know them.
“It’s an opportunity to show everybody what they’ve been missing,’’ Morris said.
That chance comes Monday night.