With three games remaining in the 2012 campaign, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers sit at 6-7 and, despite some extremely close losses along the way, are still hanging on to a slim chance at a playoff berth.
Despite the long odds, veteran tight end Dallas Clark – who knows a thing or two about tense stretch runs, postseason football, and even Super Bowl glory – says that even if the Bucs' season comes up short of a playoff berth, he's seen plenty of signs in his first year in Tampa that bode well for the future.
"It's been good," Clark said. "Obviously I think we've left a lot of opportunities out there that you would love to have back, but you can't have them back. You've got to learn and mature and grow from them and I think that's what this team is going to do, is learn from those close games and those close losses and become a better team because of it."
Speaking specifically about the offensive unit, Clark – a 10th-year veteran who spent his first nine years with the Indianapolis Colts – says he's been especially impressed with the professionalism and development displayed by some of his much younger teammates, particularly quarterback Josh Freeman.
"It's come along a lot quicker than I thought," Clark said. "[Freeman] has done a phenomenal job of leading this team, and I think all the new guys and all the new players – Vincent [Jackson], myself, Doug Martin, [Tiquan] Underwood – everyone has done a great job of being a pro and doing their job to get on the same page, learning this offense and understanding their roles. As the year has progressed, I think we've shown signs of getting better each and every week, so that's what we need as an offense."
Individually, Clark has been steady as ever, tallying 35 receptions for 360 yards and four touchdowns this season. And keeping with the theme of improving as the season wears on, it's worth pointing out that three of Clark's four scores on the year have come in the Bucs' last five games.
Clark says there's no specific reason his role in the offense – or anyone else's, for that matter – seems to have grown over the course of the season, but instead says a variety of factors come into play that can explain the ebb and flow of an offense.
"I think it's just everyone understanding their roles and understanding when defenses do this, we have to do that, and vice versa, and taking advantage of different mismatches and things like that," Clark said. "There's a lot of variables that go into why someone gets the ball more this week than that week. It's not really one particular thing. It's kind of a collection of a bunch of different things when you start getting more involved in the offense."
Regardless, Clark – a veteran of eight playoff berths and a Super Bowl XLI title while in Indianapolis – knows very well how important it is to finish strong. Whether the Bucs end up sneaking into the playoffs or not, Clark says the team needs to continue working hard, keep improving, take care of its own business, and then just let the chips fall where they may.
"Finishing strong is huge," Clark said. "Obviously getting in the playoffs is your number-one goal, and our backs are against the wall. When you're in a situation like that, you need help from a lot of different scenarios. Those are things that we can't control, and so the only things we can control are our performances each and every week.
"We've got to be professionals and do our jobs to give us a chance. This is the NFL; anything can happen. We don't want to look back and have any regrets. It's on everyone's shoulders to fight in Week 15 like we fought in Week 1. It's on everyone to focus and prepare like that."