TAMPA — When the Buccaneers open their 2014 regular season Sept. 7, few fans will remember the particulars of tonight’s exhibition matchup against the Dolphins.
But that hardly means the game doesn’t count.
One of the primary building blocks in forming a competitive NFL team is establishing dominance at home, but the Bucs have been pushovers at Raymond James Stadium since Jon Gruden was dismissed as head coach after the 2008 season.
In the past five years, Tampa Bay has dropped 26 of 40 games at home while failing to post a winning record at RJS during any season in that stretch. That’s a sharp contrast to the 14-year span from 1995-2008, when Tampa Bay went 73-39 on its own turf, suffering only two losing seasons at home.
After a 16-10 setback at Jacksonville in the preseason opener, the Bucs realize they have to give their supporters tangible reason to believe.
“First outing at home — new regime, new uniforms, new logo, new everything,’’ said two-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. “All we have of what people think about the Bucs is from Game One (last week), so we know we have to come out better.
“We have to start a lot faster and give the hometown fans something to hope for. All people want is hope. You don’t have to win the Super Bowl on Saturday. People just want hope, and we want to be able to give them that.”
There are many sub-plots to Saturday’s game, including the need for a maligned offensive line to redeem itself after a dismal effort against the Jaguars.
Coach Lovie Smith makes his home debut on the Tampa Bay sideline and veteran safety Dashon Goldson, hampered by an ankle injury during the offseason, returns to action after missing last week’s game.
Running back Doug Martin seeks to recapture his spectacular 2012 rookie form after an injury-marred season while new defensive end Michael Johnson is eager to make an impact as an edge rusher.
“It’s exciting, just being around the guys,’’ Goldson said. “Everybody has bought into the new program and what Coach is implementing here, coming in with a new scheme, new attitude. I think everybody has bought into it. Just the way we practice, the way we carry ourselves off the field.’’
It’s been almost eight months to the day since the Bucs last played at Raymond James Stadium, trudging off the field following a 33-14 loss to the powerful 49ers that marked Greg Schiano’s home farewell as head coach.
Bucs starters are likely to play into the second quarter against Miami, Smith said. Once again, new offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford is expected to provide only a peek into a thick playbook that won’t be opened until the defending NFC South champion Panthers arrive in town Week 1.
“The process doesn’t stop you from playing good football or looking good for our fans,’’ Smith said. “It’s not like we’re handcuffing our players or anything like that. We’ll have a game plan in place for us to be able to have success — and if that doesn’t happen, that has nothing to do with us trying to slow them down or anything like that. We want to play well for our opening home game of the season and we expect to.”
Stuck behind the Patriots in the AFC East, the Dolphins have the makings of a solid defense that will challenge quarterbacks Josh McCown and Mike Glennon.
In his Tampa Bay debut, McCown was chased all over Duval County by Jacksonville pass rushers, throwing an interception that was returned for a touchdown.
“I’m excited about it, just from the feedback that we’ve gotten from the fans – the support that has been here at practice,’’ McCown said. “I’m excited to play for these fans. Not only myself, but everybody in the locker room is excited about being able to go out and give these fans something they can be proud of so they can rally around.’’