It looks like the Bucs may be admitting defeat, and that’s a good thing

TAMPA — There’s an old joke about a man who asked his brother to housesit his cat while he goes on a family vacation. When the man calls home to check on everything, the brother blurts out that the cat has died.

“For goodness sakes,” the man cries, “couldn’t you have thought of a better way to break the news? Tell me the cat climbed on the roof and wouldn’t come down. Tell me you called the fire department for assistance. Tell me the cat fell and broke its back. Tell me the vet had to put the poor thing down.”

The brother apologized profusely for being so insensitive.

A day later, the man called home for an update.

“Well,” the brother says, “mom climbed on the roof and won’t come down …”

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It’s that time of the year for football fans in Tampa Bay. The games are completed, the draft is still weeks away and unbridled passion has taken a well-deserved holiday. Except for this:

The quarterback has climbed on the building’s roof at One Buc Place …

Really, there’s no softer way to break the news. The evidence suggests the Bucs are heading for a rebuild, even if the people in charge are hesitant to enunciate it quite so boldly.

Tom Brady has left and is not coming back. Roughly half the defense is heading to free agency, and the salary cap situation is unsightly. The Bucs do not have a cache of high draft picks and the jury is still out on the head coach and the first-year offensive coordinator. Shaquil Barrett, Mike Evans, Ryan Jensen and Shaq Mason will all be in their 30s, and the Bucs are coming off a season in which they were outscored for the first time since 2018.

Other than that, everything is spiffy.

Recent headlines suggest plans for the remodeling are already underway. Leonard Fournette, Cameron Brate, Donovan Smith and Ryan Succop could all be released in the coming days, and that will be a savings of more than $19 million on the salary cap. That sounds promising, except the Bucs would still have another $36 million to trim.

And that’s before signing any free agents or draft picks.

Now, there’s a school of thought that the Bucs could manipulate the salary cap with contract renegotiations that spread the pain over the coming seasons. And those kind of maneuvers absolutely made sense in 2020. And 2021. Even in 2022.

But it would be foolhardy today.

When Brady was here, the Bucs owed it to themselves to jump through whatever hoops possible to maximize their chances of winning with a once-in-a-lifetime quarterback. And that’s exactly what they did. Tampa Bay had three consecutive playoff appearances, two division titles and one Super Bowl to show for it.

They also ended up with the bloated salary cap situation you see today.

When asked about financial constraints by reporters at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis, general manager Jason Licht basically described a rebuild in the most optimistic way possible.

“We’re still trying to restock and eventually build another championship team and it’s just going to look a little different and be done a little bit differently,” Licht said. “We were in a position in 2020, after we won the Super Bowl, to be able to re-sign all of our players, which hadn’t been done, or hadn’t been done in a very long time. The goal is eventually to get back into a position like that but, in the short term, we still want to win and compete for this division. And we think we can.

“We just want to do it without sacrificing our long-term plans, our long-term goals, as well. I think we can find a way to do both at the same time.”

The relative weakness of the NFC South might make it tempting to cheat the Grim Bookkeeper one more time with salary cap shenanigans, but that’s a shortsighted plan. The Bucs are in no position to challenge for the next Super Bowl, and it makes no sense to jeopardize future seasons by gambling on another one-and-done playoff appearance.

Does that mean the Bucs should just give up on 2023? Not at all.

Their division really is winnable and, if they can avoid key injuries, the Bucs could conceivably finish somewhere around .500. They just can’t sacrifice the future to pull it off.

They’re better off finding out if quarterback Kyle Trask has a future in the league. If he shows promise, they’ll be one step closer to figuring out a new direction. If he bombs, they’ll likely be near the top of the 2024 draft and can go quarterback shopping at that point.

Either way, it’s time to face reality in Tampa Bay.

The glory days are dead. And that’s no joke.

John Romano can be reached at Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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