One of the enduring images from Raheem Morris' first year as head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, in 2009, was the postgame locker room scene at the Louisiana Superdome in Week 16. The Buccaneers had just pulled off one of the most surprising upsets in NFL history, at least in terms of the difference between the two teams' records coming in, and the mood was jubilant. Morris fed into the celebratory atmosphere and used it to build team camaraderie, which would serve them well the next season when the league's youngest team would surprise everyone with a 10-6 record.
The postgame locker room at Candlestick Park on Sunday, 94 weeks after that raucous Sunday in New Orleans, obviously had a different feel. Morris' Buccaneers had just suffered their most lopsided defeat in a dozen years, a 48-3 decision against the 49ers that just rolled out of control over the course of three unhappy hours. Still, Morris had to deliver a message to his team, one that could – in the short term or the long run – have a significant impact on the Bucs' fortunes, too.
So what did Morris want his team, still the youngest in football, to do about this unexpected loss? Stand up to it.
"He basically said, 'You have one of two ways [to deal with it]: you can sulk about it or decide to stand up and face it like a man," said 23-year-old quarterback Josh Freeman. "Judging by the response of the team we are choosing the later."
Freeman was resolute at the postgame podium underneath the stands at the venerable Candlestick Park. As has been noted quite frequently the last two years, he is a remarkably mature leader for such a young player, and he might be one of the best on Morris' roster at not riding what the coach likes to call 'the emotional roller coaster.' Freeman insisted that his crew, while disappointed in its effort on Sunday, realizes that it still only counts as a single loss in the standings.
"We are fine," he said firmly. "Nobody's confidence is shaken. We are fine. Raheem went up, gave a speech after the game and guys understand that we are going to have to come in and put in another week. This league waits for no one. You need to bury this game, so to speak, and move on.
"I see losses as all the same. It's whether we lose by one or by how many we lost by, a loss is a loss. You can't let it get you down regardless."
Center Jeff Faine, one of the relatively few experienced veterans on the roster, actually thinks the team's youth is a positive in the current situation. One might believe that inexperienced players would have difficulty dealing with the type of loss they probably have never experienced before, but Faine thinks the opposite is true.
"I think that the young guys might be at an advantage," he said. "For an old guy, it stings. Again it's something that these guys can bounce back. I think these guys will have a short memory. These guys have a lot of energy, we are a loose team, we play with a lot of swagger, a lot of confidence and we have fun with it. It is supposed to be that way and it is not going to change."
The team's most experienced veteran, cornerback Ronde Barber, is the only one with first-hand memory of the last Bucs' game with a similar margin of defeat. In Week 15 of 1999, the Bucs went to Oakland riding a six-game winning streak. The Raiders could do no wrong that day, running the ball with abandon and creating turnovers, and the final score was 45-0. The Bucs rebounded from that defeat immediately, winning their last two regular-season contests, earning a first-round bye and advancing all the way to the NFC Championship Game in St. Louis.
Obviously, the Bucs don't believe that another 45-point loss is a good omen, or that a bounce-back is guaranteed without enough hard work, but they do believe that Sunday's loss won't have any bearing on the next game.
"It happens; you have to believe it is an aberration," said Barber. "What happened, happened and you move on from it."
The Bucs will move directly on to another game against the Saints, though this one is in Tampa next Sunday. The Saints pulled out a late victory in Carolina on Sunday before the Buccaneers played to move to 4-1 and take over sole possession of first place in the NFC South. Tampa Bay is alone in second at 3-2 and can retake a share of the lead with a win over the Saints.
Of course, moving on doesn't mean blocking out the lessons that could be learned from Sunday's defeat in San Fran. In the Bucs' case, it just means absorbing those lessons without letting any attendant emotion get them down.
"We are a young team and I think the characteristic of a young team is not to internalize it too much," said Faine. "You have to look at this as a mistake. We have to look at a lot of things that have happened, like not starting fast, turnovers and penalties. Those things we have to eliminate. We have our jobs cut out for us, but we know that."