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For Bucs, December offers chance for gain ... or pain

September allows you to dream. The NFL season is young, and the legs are fresh, and even bad teams think they are pretty good.

October lets you adjust. It isn't too late to overcome a bad start, and an injured player has time to come back. Even the awful teams don't have to surrender in October.

November allows you to hope. If this team wins this game, and if that one loses that one, and if you get a couple of breaks, why, your team has an outside chance to make the playoffs after all. No one loves November more than a football team doing math.

And December?

December tells you who you are.

As months go, December is more cruel than it is cold. It tells a team the truth about itself. December fires coaches, and it retires players, and it separates a successful season from the other kind. It is the month of rookies hitting the wall, of injuries catching up, of opportunities slipping away. It sets you up for the playoffs, or it shuts you out of them.

For Tampa Bay, it has always been this way. In the worst of times, it is a 31-day expose. In the best of them, it sets up a team for the postseason. In the NFL, December can dig your grave or it can build your statue.

And here we are again.

A season is on the line, and the next four games will define a season.

How will 2012 be remembered? For all that has happened, no one knows yet.

If the Bucs finish strong, if they make a legitimate run at the playoffs, then the positive buzz that has defined most of this season will likely continue. Most fans seem to like what they have seen of Greg Schiano this year, and they love Doug Martin and Lavonte David and Mark Barron. There are a lot of talented young players on the Bucs, and if nothing else, it seems like a turnaround has begun.

Ah, but what if the Bucs — already 0-1 in December — were to collapse? What if they were to lose, and lose badly, in the most important month of the regular season? How much of their rebuilt momentum might be lost along the way? How much of the reborn faith might turn to doubt? If the Bucs lose to New Orleans, or worse, to St. Louis, or even worse, to Philadelphia, would you still be as pumped about the seasons to come?

Before you answer, remember this: For Bucs fans, December has often been a miserable time of year.

Remember last season, when Raheem Morris' fate was sealed when his team spent December getting out of the way of other teams? It lost all four December games, giving up 38, 41, 31 and 48 points, then 45 in a Jan. 1 appearance.

Remember Jon Gruden's final season, when defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin was bound to join his son Lane's staff at Tennessee? Teams took turns running through the Bucs (scoring 38, 13, 41 and 31 points). A postseason that seemed almost assured when the Bucs were 9-3 after November was lost, and Gruden lost his job shortly afterward.

For the Bucs, December is like that. It's Martin Gramatica's missed field goal at Green Bay, and it's Ray Perkins losing his job after a rare victory, and it's Derrick Brooks hobbling downfield after Raiders running back Michael Bush.

It's Tony Dungy hearing rumors about Bill Parcells coming to take his job, and it's the Bucs trying to let the Jets score so James Wilder could set a record (he didn't), and it's Sam Wyche giving a long, rambling speech about the meaning of Christmas after a lost season.

It's Leeman Bennett never winning a game in December, and it's Rich McKay jumping ship to a rival because of his feud with Gruden, and it's Dungy having Gatorade dumped on his head after a 6-10 season.

It's the Snow Bowl in Green Bay in '85. It's Richard Williamson getting fired. It's Wyche, his replacement, getting fired in '95 after finishing one-dash-three after starting out, in his words, five-dash-two.

True, true, for the better Bucs teams, there have been some nice days in December. The Bucs won their first game (after an 0-26 start) in December. Their first playoff win (over Philadelphia in '79) was in December. Dungy's first playoff win (over Detroit in '97) was also in December.

The Bucs also beat Kansas City 3-0 to advance to the '79 playoffs. They beat Detroit in 1981 in a winner-goes-to-the-playoffs game. In 2002 they won three games in December to set up their Super Bowl run.

And maybe that's the point. Bad teams are defined by December. Good teams are defined by January.

Which brings us back to the 2012 team and the question of whether it can survive the turn of the calendar.

Perhaps that's best thing you can say about the first three months of the season. The Bucs have been good enough that they would not seem out of place in the postseason. As such, you are allowed to be disappointed with anything else. It's okay; they'll be disappointed, too.

To get there, the Bucs have to re-establish Martin. By now you probably have heard the questions about whether he has hit the rookie wall. My guess is his ordinary numbers of late are because injuries have caught up with the offensive line. Without Carl Nicks and Davin Joseph, the line isn't good enough to adapt to the way the defenses are now playing the run.

Josh Freeman needs to rediscover the big play. The pass rush needs to establish itself. The cornerbacks — and this is a lot to ask — need to stay in the same area code as opposing receivers.

In the end, the Bucs need three victories, maybe four, out of the rest of this month.

If they can accomplish that, they may have a December worth remembering. Who knows? Maybe a January, too.

Listen to Gary Shelton weekdays from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. on 98.7-FM the Fan.

For Bucs, December offers chance for gain ... or pain 12/06/12 [Last modified: Thursday, December 6, 2012 10:32pm]
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