For­get about ex­cuses: For this team, the win­ning has to start right away.

Tampa Bay Times - - Sports - MARTIN FENNELLY mfen­nelly@tam­pabay.com

TAMPA — They starred on Hard Knocks.

They got through Irma. They hope, as Jameis Win­ston said, that to­day’s be­lated sea­son opener pro­duces some­thing more than a foot­ball game.

“A lot of peo­ple in this city have some trou­bling times right now,” Win­ston said. “It’s ex­cit­ing that hope­fully this team can be the gid­dyup for peo­ple who were af­fected by the storm.”

Now they just have to go out and win.

The NFL sea­son is fi­nally here for the Bucs. They’re a week be­hind. Every­thing seems a lit­tle off-kil­ter as they take the field at Ray­mond James Sta­dium against Chicago.

Bear trap.

Or at least it could be, with for­mer Bucs quar­ter­back Mike Glen­non thrown in for good mea­sure.

The Bucs come into 2017 with high ex­pec­ta­tions. Hard Knocks didn’t seem to be a dis­trac­tion, but we don’t know yet, do we? Irma post­poned the sea­son opener at Mi­ami. The de­lay will squeeze this sea­son into 16 con­sec­u­tive weeks of foot­ball, no bye. Eight Bucs starters to­day will not have played foot­ball in a month.

There have been dis­trac­tions. There could be ex­cuses.

Only there can’t be ex­cuses. “None at all,” Win­ston said. “We’re pros,” re­ceiver Mike Evans said. “The cap­tains and the lead­ers on this team are go­ing to be on the guys, but I don’t see there be­ing a prob­lem. We’re pro­fes­sion­als, and we’ve been wait­ing to play, so we want to go play.”

They’re pro­fes­sion­als with a job to do — to start this sea­son the right way.

You go and win.

You go and win be­cause a tone needs to be set. You go and win be­cause it would speak to fo­cus and lead­er­ship. We saw all kinds of lead­er­ship on Hard Knocks — Win­ston, Gerald McCoy, Dirk Koet­ter. This is the test. All that wait­ing, all the pos­si­ble dis­trac­tions, all the pos­si­ble ex­cuses.

You go and win be­cause the Bears went 3-13 last sea­son, though they played At­lanta tough last Sun­day. You stop enough of the Chicago run game and you put Glen­non in third and long and you make him beat you. And you don’t let him. Not to start this sea­son.

Yes, open­ers tend to be over­rated. The Fal­cons lost to the Bucs in At­lanta in the sea­son opener last sea­son but still went to the Su­per Bowl. The 2002 Bucs lost their sea­son opener but still won the Su­per Bowl. The de­fend­ing Su­per Bowl cham­pion Pa­tri­ots just lost their opener.

The Tex­ans came into their sea­son opener with all sorts of emo­tions after Hur­ri­cane Har­vey hit. All-Pro de­fen­sive end J.J. Watt hit the field in his sta­dium wav­ing the Texas state flag. What an emo­tional mo­ment. Then the Tex­ans got pounded by the Jaguars.

The Bucs need this opener, maybe for the com­mu­nity, but mostly for them­selves. There has been so much talk about this team tak­ing those next steps.

To­day is that first step. You don’t lose this game.

To­day will mark 22 days since most of the Bucs starters, who skipped the pre­sea­son fi­nale, will have played in a game. And there are 16 straight games dead ahead.

“It’s prob­a­bly go­ing to be hard on them, but I don’t think any­body is go­ing to be feel­ing sorry for us,” Koet­ter said. “I know the Bears aren’t go­ing to feel sorry for us. If you look around the league, there are a lot of teams that have is­sues. … Jack­sonville couldn’t get back from their game. Mi­ami had to go to Cal­i­for­nia a week early. There are is­sues for ev­ery team.”

“If we go out there (to­day) and don’t per­form, y’all are go­ing to write the Bucs didn’t do well,” McCoy said. “You’re not go­ing to say, ‘Oh, they didn’t do well be­cause … ’ You’re go­ing to say they just didn’t do well. No­body cares, so we don’t care.”

Yes, every­thing feels a lit­tle off-kil­ter. And will there be a Hard Knocks hang­over? It be­gins to­day for the Bucs. Gid­dyup.

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