Gerald McCoy said it was a roller coaster ride, full of ups and downs, highs and lows.
He was talking about the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' entire 2010 season. He could have been referring to its final, emotional day.
The Buccaneers woke up on the last Sunday of the regular season with a chance to make the playoffs, something very NFL prognosticators saw coming. They then put together one of the most impressive victories in franchise history, a 23-13 win over the playoff-bound New Orleans Saints in the Superdome and an outcome they had to have to stay alive. A few hours later, they boarded a plane pointed back to Tampa with their eyes on a couple of very close 4:00 p.m. games.
Unfortunately, the Buccaneers' playoff hopes descended before their plane could do the same in Florida. Both the Green Bay Packers and the New York Giants won while the Bucs were in flight; both needed to lose for Tampa Bay to get in. It's the Packers who will head into the postseason with the NFC's sixth seed.
On one very long day, the Bucs won a heap of respect but lost the opportunity they had been fighting for all year. By Monday morning, they were figuring out how to balance their disappointment with a dose of perspective.
"It's never alright when you don't make the playoffs, but we got 10 wins," said McCoy. "For a three-win team that was predicted to have two to four wins this year, we proved everybody wrong. I said it all year – we weren't worried about what everybody else thought. We knew we could do it because we believed in the that vision Coach Raheem [Morris] had, and we got 10 wins. It was exciting."
And incredible. When Morris told his team in August that they were about to embark on a Race to 10, what he was calling for was simply the greatest season-to-season turnaround in franchise history. The Bucs had won three games in 2009, Morris' first at the helm, which meant a seven-game improvement was necessary to finish that race.
The Bucs got to 10 wins, they just didn't get their fast enough to leave room for an all-important 11th victory. The Bucs share with the Giants the distinction of being just the seventh and eighth teams since the playoff field expanded to 12 spots in 1990 to win at least 10 games and not make the playoffs. The last time it happened in the NFC was almost 20 years ago, in 1991, when both Philadelphia and San Francisco went 10-6 but missed out on the postseason.
So Morris was right to tell his young and impressionable team in August that 10 wins would likely get them into the dance. Morris placed the bar very high, and his team surprised everyone by clearing it. It's just unfortunate that the Bucs' leap didn't land them in the tournament, which is why Sunday was something of a bittersweet day.
"As long as we met our goals – and we did – that's all we can do," said tight end Kellen Winslow. "Usually with 10 wins you can get in, but we've got a tough division. Me and Gilly [John Gilmore] were just talking about how, 'Dang, it's over now.' Just when it was getting good. I felt like we were just reaching our potential."
The Bucs were in fact starting to hit on all cylinders down the stretch. They won three of their last four games and over the final two weekends beat a pair of playoff-bound teams by a combined score of 61 to 28. The one loss in that stretch was in overtime to Detroit in Week 15, the only game all season that the Bucs lost when they were leading at halftime.
"It's very encouraging to look at the way we played down the stretch," said quarterback Josh Freeman. "Obviously the Lions game was a setback but we feel like we can go in and compete with any team and win those games, win those tough games. For a young team, that's half the battle, getting over the hump and realizing that you are a good team. You have the talent to go out and play with these teams that are in the playoffs this year."
Nobody played better down the stretch than Freeman, who in those last four games completed a superb 71.6% of his passes (78 of 109) for 1009 yards (252.3 per game), nine touchdowns and no interceptions. No one – not Aaron Rodgers or Peyton Manning or Ben Roethlisberger or even the similarly red-hot Tom Brady – had a better passer rating over the last four weeks of the season than Josh Freeman's 127.8.
There will be much more to write about regarding Freeman and his sublime sophomore campaign, and readers will find that here soon on Buccaneers.com. But on Monday Freeman was thinking more about what could have been. Like his teammates, he experienced a mixture of disappointment and pride as he flew back to Tampa.
"We were on the plane and it was kind of like, 'Gah,'" said Freeman of receiving the news of the Green Bay and New York scores. "We were looking at the games and thinking, 'Maybe the Redskins will pull it off.' I was hoping Chicago would too. It's just a shame. The odds were against us all along, but going into Week 17 we did our job.
"It's frustrating. It's definitely going to add a little lead to our pencil next year. We're going to be coming. To get that close and then to fall short…there's so much we can work on and next year try to be ready."
It's hard to push Morris off his trademark upbeat demeanor, and he handled the Bucs' 11th-hour elimination with equanimity. He said he was more disappointed for his coaching staff, which had worked so hard for months on end, and his players, who had completely bought into the Race.
"We're obviously disappointed because we didn't get in," said Morris. "It didn't work out in our favor but we certainly went out and handled our business and did everything we could do yesterday to put ourselves in position to play extra games. It didn't work out that way but we certainly started something this year and hopefully we can build on it next year and grow from it. We talked about putting together a team for the long-term, winning for a numerous amount of years, and I think we set ourselves up for that."
General Manager Mark Dominik, who joined Morris at the team's helm in January of 2009 and laid out a plan that would take the team back to a position of annual contention, echoed that confidence in the Bucs' future.
"Certainly we're disappointed that we're not playing and preparing for the Philadelphia Eagles right now, but at the same point we all see where this ship is headed," he said. "And that's why we're so excited about the plan that we started with about two years ago and where it's gotten us to today. There's so much to build on what just started. That's what is most rewarding."
The Buccaneers surprised a lot of people in 2010, even amazed some. They made themselves proud with their do-or-die effort in a hostile environment in Week 17, and they swallowed some frustration that will turn into more fuel for 2011. The Race to 10 was, in a very real way, a success, even if the Bucs didn't get the prize they wanted at the end.
"We wanted to get 10 wins," said McCoy. Ultimately, you want to get those 10 wins early. You want to be the first one; that's what the race is, and then you make the playoffs. So many different things happened. We had so many ups and downs, highs and lows this year, emotionally, physically, people getting hurt, people coming around. A lot of different things happened this season and there's a lot to look forward to next season."