Everybody should take a year off work, Lovie Smith says, before adding, “if you can get someone else to pay for it.”
Smith spent last fall in the basement of his home near Chicago watching football. It was a forced but financed hiatus after he was fired by the Bears following a 10–6 season in 2012.
The Buccaneers also wanted to push the reset button following their 4–12 season under Greg Schiano. Smith, who began his NFL coaching career teaching linebackers on Tony Dungy’s staff in Tampa Bay in ’96, was the perfect choice.
“My original statement was for us to become a relevant team again,” Smith says. “And what’s relevant? We want to win all of our home games. We want to put a good product on the field. We want it to be like the old days where teams said. ‘Oh, man, we’ve got to go to Tampa this week. It’s tough going down there.’ We have the same goal as everyone. It’s to win games. To win our division. To win the Super Bowl.”
The Bucs were last in the NFL in total offense last season, so Smith and new general manager Jason Licht believed an overhaul was necessary. They began by cleaning house on an overpriced, unproductive offensive line. Tackle Donald Penn and guard Davin Joseph were released. Center Jeremy Zuttah was traded. In their place, the Bucs signed Bengals free agent tackle Anthony Collins and Packers center Evan Dietrich-Smith. The only returners were expected to be tackle Demar Dotson and guard Carl Nicks, but Nicks unexpectedly announced his retirement prior to the start of training camp. After coming over from New Orleans as a free agent in 2012, Nicks played in just nine games in two injury-plagued seasons with Tampa Bay.
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Smith reached back into his past to select a quarterback — Bears free agent Josh McCown, who threw 13 touchdowns and one interception in five starts filling in for the injured Jay Cutler last season. McCown was immediately named the starter over Mike Glennon, who had been dubbed the Bucs’ “quarterback of the future” by the previous regime. Glennon started 13 games as a rookie and threw for 2,608 yards with 19 touchdowns and nine interceptions.
The Bucs have surrounded McCown with some big targets, the Dunk-a-neers, as Licht calls them — rookie receiver Mike Evans (6'5"), rookie tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins (6'5") and veteran Vincent Jackson (6'5"). Evans, who is still relatively new to football, caught 151 passes for 2,499 yards in his two active seasons at Texas A&M.
Even though the Bucs believed they had depth at running back with Doug Martin, Mike James and Bobby Rainey, they added a Matt Forté clone in rookie Charles Sims, who caught more than 200 passes during his time at Houston and West Virginia. Martin was the team’s primary ball-carrier through the first part of the ’13 season, but he went down with a shoulder injury in a loss to Atlanta in late October. He was averaging only 3.6 yards per carry at the time of his injury. Rainey stepped in and ended up leading the team in rushing with 532 yards on a 3.9-yard average.
What remains to be seen is how offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford, the former Cal head coach, deploys all those weapons. But early indications are that the Bucs will play faster.
“I know you have to play offense and score points to win,” Smith says.
The Tampa-2 has returned home. Fortunately, Smith had two All-Pro components waiting for him — defensive tackle Gerald McCoy (9.5 sacks in ’13) and weak-side linebacker Lavonte David. He also reached back to his past to hire former Bucs linebacker Hardy Nickerson to coach that position.
“The three-technique in this defense is so important, and Gerald is the best in football right now,” Smith said. “And I think Lavonte is one of the best linebackers I’ve ever seen, and he’s still a young player.”
Jonathan Casillas, who was used mostly on special teams last year but re-signed as a free agent, has the inside track on winning the job at strong-side linebacker.
Smith’s defense generates a pass rush using the front four linemen. McCoy finally will have help with the addition of Bengals free-agent defensive end Michael Johnson and Seahawks defensive tackle Clinton McDonald. Defensive end Adrian Clayborn will attempt to switch from the right to the left side.
In order to clear some salary cap space, the Bucs released cornerback Darrelle Revis, who was due to earn $16 million in 2014. But they replaced him with Alterraun Verner, a former Titan who made the Pro Bowl for the first time last season. The strength of the secondary is the combination of safeties Mark Barron and Dashon Goldson.
The Bucs have not had a player with double-digit sacks since Simeon Rice in 2005. That should change under Smith, and it will need to if the Bucs are going to slow down the collection of NFC South quarterbacks that includes Drew Brees, Cam Newton and Matt Ryan.
If there is one thing Smith is banking on, it’s that he can make the Bucs’ defense elite again.
Placekicker Connor Barth missed all of 2013 after suffering a torn Achilles while playing in a charity basketball game a week before training camp. Then Lawrence Tynes was infected with MRSA following a procedure on an in-grown toenail. Barth is back and has been kicking since January. He says his leg may have actually benefitted from the rest, and he has been booting 61-yard field goals. A career 84 percent field-goal kicker is a nice weapon to have when you are likely to play a lot of low-scoring games. Punter Michael Koenen had a net average of 38.3 yards and pinned a career low 21.8 percent of his punts inside the 20-yard line. His ability to kick off remains an added bonus.
Olympic sprinter Jeff Demps has devoted his training to football and easily will be the fastest man in the NFL. He should serve as the Bucs’ primary kickoff returner. Receiver Eric Page will return punts again this year.
Smith brings stability and an identity back to the Bucs. Only nine players drafted before 2013 remain on the team. The defense should be among the best in the league, and the offense will be improved. But McCown has thrown for as many yards or touchdowns in the past five years as Glennon did as a rookie. Smith had four offensive coordinators in Chicago, and his offense never finished higher than 15th. It remains to be seen whether Tedford’s offense can be productive at the pro level. A worst-to-first rise in the NFC South is commonplace but probably too much to ask this year.