TAMPA - The man in charge of the Bucs' future is in the dark. In the rebirth of pessimism, there are those who might consider it a bad sign.
Bruce Allen leans forward, squinting at a computer screen alive with the images of one of last year's Bucs-Saints games. There is a cell phone pressed to his ear. There is a ticking watch on his wrist. It might surprise you, but there is hope in his voice.
Allen rises from his desk, walks across his office, turns on the light.
Sit down, he says.
Let's talk about the Bucs.
Outside, the sky is falling. The Bucs are 0-4, and the nay-sayers are beginning to organize. To the skeptics among us, the Bucs look slow and old and overmatched. They have the look of a bad team that is going to be that way for a while.
Inside, Allen has a different vision of the Bucs. You see chaos, he sees competitiveness. You see problems, he sees possibilities. You see what this team used to be, he sees what it will be yet.
At this point, feel free to hope that his eyesight is better than yours.
He is the man at the steering wheel. Criticize him, question him, start a Web site calling for his head, but it doesn't change things. Allen is hope's caretaker. On a franchise that seems to have fallen from a mountaintop, he is in charge of making sure it does not hit bottom.
In an election year, why not ask Allen for a state of the union message.
Allen laughs at the question. Then he plays along.
"Let's see," he said. "The polls have us down right now. . . . However, I think it's promising."
What does Allen think? He thinks the Bucs can still turn into a good team. He thinks too much has been made of the Bucs' age. He thinks this year's offseason did nothing to compromise the Bucs' future. He thinks there is work to be done.
There are television screens, and computer screens, in Allen's office. There are large message boards and research materials. There are not, however, a lot of personal touches in the room. Considering he is the son of Hall of Fame coach George Allen, considering his four decades as an agent and an administrator, considering all the hours he has spent in his room, it seems impersonal.
On one side of the room, on a message board, the NFC South standings are written. Each week, Allen writes them out.
"I want to break the marker in half," he said. "It drives me nutty. It's heart-wrenching to lose.
"I don't think anyone plans to be 0-4. At times, we haven't played well, but we've had a chance to win our games, especially three of them. In the Raider game, we fell behind, but the other three, we could have won with one play. There is a magic formula we just haven't gotten to yet."
On the other hand, the NFL is a league of close games. Compare the Bucs with Jacksonville. Statistically, Tampa Bay is two places higher on defense, two places higher on offense.
"I would suggest we've played better overall," Allen said. "But they're 3-1. They've made a play to win the game.
"We're 0-4. It's disappointing. But I see the potential for better things. . . . We still have a lot of football to be played this season."
How has it gotten so bad? You ask Allen if it's the natural product of a successful team growing to the point where the contracts get heavy and the cap gets cumbersome. You ask if it is a bill coming due for all the draft picks (five No. 1s and three No. 2s) spent to acquire Jon Gruden, Keyshawn Johnson and Kenyatta Walker. You ask if it is misspent draft picks or signing the wrong free agents or ...
"Yes," Allen interrupts. "It's all of those things. Everything goes into the equation. I think there is a misconception in this league that you either build through the draft or through free agency or through trades. The answer is yes. You do all of those things."
Ah, but the salary cap has lessened the number of impact trades. That means to replace the draft picks surrendered, the Bucs have looked toward free agency. That, too, is affected by the cap. Allen says the reason he has signed so many veterans is that the salary cap exemption they are given makes them more affordable.
"Would we have preferred to have signed a lot of 25-year-olds with great ability?" he said. "Of course."
Look around. Does anyone see a great player on offense? Ask yourself this: In two years, which of the current Bucs do you see starting on offense? Michael Clayton, sure. And Chris Simms. Maybe Jeb Terry and Anthony Davis.
Allen admits there is work to be done. He said he does not think the team is doomed to lose while holes are filled, however.
"The team was 7-9 last year," Allen said. "That's a fact. They had the magical Super Bowl season . . . . But the year before that, they were 9-8. So what are the Bucs? Over those three years, it's a great question."
The hard news, Allen says, is that the Bucs' salary cap will not be user-friendly this year, either. It will be another year of bargain shopping, of trying to find a dime's worth of help for every nickel.
How long until the Bucs are good again?
"I don't think that way," Allen said. "Again, we've had an opportunity to win these games. That doesn't mean that our scouts aren't going across the country and that we aren't looking at next year's free agents and trying to make decisions. Even if we had won, there would be some things we needed to do."
And how about this past offseason? By signing so many veterans, did the Bucs further complicate their issues?
"No," Allen said. He picks up a roster and begins to count.
"We've got 15 players on a one-year contract," he said. "That's nothing."
In hindsight, would Allen have done anything differently?
"If I knew some people were going to get hurt, I'd have done some things differently," he said. "But if I knew people were going to get hurt, . . . I'd be somewhere using that seer talent."
But, Bruce. Aren't older players more susceptible to injury?
"No," Allen said firmly. "There is nothing to tell you that suggestion is true. We play a violent sport. The weekend (Rich) Gannon went out for the season, so did (Rex) Grossman. The weekend (Charlie) Garner went out, so did (Correll) Buckhalter. Neither one of them was hit. Both just made a cut and it happened. The same weekend Kellen Winslow Jr. went out, so did Rickey Dudley.
"Rod Woodson said it best. If a young player gets hurt, it's "What an unfortunate injury.' If a veteran gets hurt, "It's because his bones are old.' These are young people. Their bones don't decay from 29-32 years. It's not like they're 84 years old and they fell brushing their teeth."
He does not apologize, he does not surrender. Give Allen this, he does not blame, and he does not plead for time.
He thinks things are going to be all right. He thinks winning will return. He's excited about the future, including today's game.
Perhaps that is the ultimate answer to his critics. Nothing drives a pessimist crazier than optimism.