Published August 26, 2014
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers tried to innovate and now it's time to go back to that comfortable old shoe.
Lovie Smith may not like that statement but it's a pretty accurate description of what going on in central Florida.
The professionalism is back in the Tampa Bay organization and so is in the intrigue after the veteran coach, who made his NFL bones as Tony Dungy's linebackers coach with the Bucs, was brought in to replace the train wreck that was Greg Schiano.
The move at the top is why the Bucs are a sexy pick by many to be a playoff contender in 2014, especially if veteran free agent quarterback Josh McCown can take advantage of a similar set-up to what he had in Chicago with two very tall receivers (Vincent Jackson and rookie Mike Evans).
Smith, a defensive-minded guy, and new general manager Jason Licht have plenty of work to do, though, and need to rebuild the offensive line, and add depth at all three levels on defense, especially in the secondary after releasing star cornerback Darrelle Revis,
The new Bucs regime signed the 35-year-old McCown and has made it very clear by its actions that they don't have all that much confidence in second-year signal-caller Mike Glennon, at least right away.
It's probably fair to think Smith has a ceiling as far as success goes. His long-term stint in Chicago foreshadows that he's not getting you the Lombardi Trophy but he is going to make you very competitive and do it rather quickly.
The main concern with Smith is his reliance on the Tampa-2, a zone-based defense which is nearly extinct in the NFL as a base scheme because of its limitations in a rapidly changing league filled with spread offenses and rules limiting what defensive backs can do.
If Smith uses his default setting judiciously while changing fronts and encouraging consistent pressure, he has a chance to reach the innovation curve that Tampa thought it was getting when they plucked Schiano out of the college ranks.
2013 RECORD: 4-12 (3rd, NFC South)
LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2007, lost to New York Giants in NFC Wild Card Playoff
HEAD COACH (RECORD): Lovie Smith (first season with Buccaneers, 81-63 in nine seasons)
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Jeff Tedford (first season with Buccaneers)
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Leslie Frazier (first season with Buccaneers)
KEY ADDITIONS: QB Josh McCown (from Bears), TE Brandon Myers (from Giants), OT Anthony Collins (from Bengals), G/OT Oniel Cousins (from browns), C Evan Dietrich-Smith (from Packers), DE Michael Johnson (from Bengals), DT Clinton McDonald (from Seahawks), CB Alterraun Verner (from Titans), CB Mike Jenkins (from Raiders), S Major Wright (from Bears), WR Mike Evans (first round, Texas A&M), TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins (Washington).
KEY DEPARTURES: WR Mike Williams (to Bills), OT Donald Penn (to Raiders), OG Davin Joseph, OC Jeremy Zuttah (to Ravens), CB Darrelle Revis (to Patriots).
QB: A lot can happen in a year. Last summer, the Buccaneers were prepared to move forward with the talented Josh Freeman, who mixed with the overbearing Schiano like oil and water. Schiano pulled the plug on Freeman but it can be argued that each destroyed the other's career with an inability to coexist.
Glennon, a third-round pick in 2013, showed some signs in his rookie year as a king-sized, pure-pocket passer in the mold of Joe Flacco. He won't get a chance to build on that, however, as Smith turned toward familiarity with McCown, who was spectacular in the Windy City last season as an injury replacement for Jay Cutler.
McCown put together an amazing 13-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio, while completing 66.5 percent of his passes and amassing an impressive 8.2 yards per attempt, a plain indication he was able to get the football down the field.
McCown, of course, had huge, talented receivers with the Bears in Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, along with tight end Martellus Bennett, and excelled while tossing jump balls and back-shoulder fades.
The Bucs attempted to copy that blueprint by drafting Mike Evans and Austin Seferian-Jenkins, both 6-foot-5 players, to team with just as lengthy Vincent Jackson.
RB: McCown should have a strong rushing attack to support him despite a significant injury to third-round pick Charles Sims.
Third-year star Doug Martin, who rushed for 1,454 yards as a rookie, should have fresh legs after returning from an injury-plagued season in which he toiled in only six games.
Sims would have been a natural complement as a third-down back because he has pretty impressive receiving skills but will miss at least a significant portion of his rookie season due to an ankle injury that will take three to four months to recover from.
"Knowing a player like Charles Sims, he'll recover and that's what we have to do is let him know that this is a part of it," Smith said. "Injuries happen and you'll come back as strong as ever. We just want him to come back as soon as possible also."
The backup duties will now fall to either Mike James or Bobby Rainey, who both proved effective at times when filling in for Martin in 2013.
WR: The lengthy Evans of Texas A&M could team with Jackson to give McCown a very similar set-up to what he had in Chicago last season. The 6-5 Evans has elite ball skills but must improve his route running and versatility (he only lined up on the right side in College Station) to become an all-around player.
"He's what today's wide receiver is all about, with the advent of back- shoulder fade, and with big wide receivers playing outside the numbers and in the red zone," NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said when discussing Evans. "The buzz word is catching radius. When paired with Vincent Jackson it's going to be like basketball on grass (in Tampa)."
The veteran Jackson played basketball for two years at Northern Colorado and he plays like it with an ability to high point the football like few others. At 31 Jackson lacks true deep speed but is sneaky fast because of his size with an ability to lull defensive backs to sleep.
Depth is an issue. Chris Owusu, a former practice-squad player with San Diego and the Bucs, is battling Evans right now and is a player with good hands and quick feet but he's had significant concussion issues dating back to his college days at Stanford.
The other option would be nondescript veteran Louis Murphy.
TE: Veteran Brandon Myers, a player with solid hands and decent technique to at least hold the edge, will be expected to hold down the fort until rookie second-round pick Seferian-Jenkins is ready.
Seferian-Jenkins is a bit of a dinosaur, a true two-way tight end with terrific movement skills and receiving ability for a big man, along with the ability be an effective in-line blocker thanks to his size and strength.
"He has big hands. He's a big target, and can run all the routes you want," NFL Network draft analyst Charles Davis said. "(He) is also a terror in the red zone."
Tim Wright, a former wideout, could develop into a difference maker when detached from the formation but he will offer little help as a blocker.
"I love Tim Wright as a football player," Smith said. "Tim Wright has been a good football player for us, we like what he'll be able to do. You can split him out and the matchups we'll have with safeties and linebackers. You can catch me at any time and I might be disappointed in a player, but big picture, no there's no disappointment with Tim Wright. We like him being on our football team."
OL: Tampa also made some significant changes up front to improve what was a bad offensive line in 2013.
The overrated Donald Penn is gone to Oakland with former Bengal Anthony Collins brought in to upgrade on the blind side, a key component because McCown isn't exactly Michael Vick when it comes to movement skills. Collins will bookend right tackle Demar Dotson, who was the Bucs' best O-lineman a season ago.
The other big addition came at center where the Buccaneers traded Jeremy Zuttah to the Ravens to pave the way for former Packer Evan Dietrich-Smith, a technique-based lineman who Aaron Rodgers loved. Dietrich-Smith should be flanked by a pair of untested players with Jamon Meredith and Oniel Cousins getting the first chance, which could be a major issue.
In fact Meredith was benched after the first preseason game and Tampa pulled off a trade, sending safety Kelcie McCray to Kansas City for guard Rishaw Johnson.
"We felt like we got a good football player. They got a good football player, too," Smith said of the deal.
Rookie Kadeem Edwards, a fifth-round pick, could also fit in on the interior.
DL: This could turn out to be the strength of the Buccaneers. They already had stud Gerald McCoy, one of the better defensive tackles in the NFL, and then added the lengthy Michael Johnson via free agency.
Johnson, who excelled at both setting the edge and rushing the passer in Cincinnati, got a five-year death worth $43.75 million. He had just 3 1/2 sacks in 2013 but that can be attributed to Mike Zimmer's rotational system where "everybody eats" and Johnson is just two years removed from an 11 1/2- sack season.
Undersized former Seahawk Clinton McDonald, who was an impressive interior rusher in limited reps, will be next to McCoy in the inside while former first-round pick Adrian Clayborn is being given every opportunity to win the left end job.
A pair of second-year players, defensive end William Gholston and defensive tackle Akeem Spence, should provide the depth.
LB: The Tampa linebacking corps has some issues but it also has one of the best in all of football in Lavonte David, who is coming off a brilliant season.
Perhaps the best 4-3 weak-side linebacker in the NFL, David has a skill set which harkens back to the days of Hall of Famer Derrick Brooks, who was asked to so insane things in the cover-2. Davis is the rare three-down LB in today's substitute-heavy NFL world who won't hurt you in any phase. He is adept at playing the run, excellent in coverage and a tremendous pass rusher.
Middle linebacker Mason Foster is inconsistent and has trouble shedding blocks at time while strong-side 'backer Jonathan Casillas is trying to play himself out of a job, being benched for "disciplinary reasons" in the all- important Week 3 of the preseason.
Journeyman Danny Lansanah, who has bounced around quite a bit, might be in play if Casillas continues to have issues.
DB: One of the main criticisms you can level at the Tampa-2 defense is that there is no place for a player like Revis in it, perhaps the best man-to-man cover corner in the game. To his credit, though, Smith understood Revis wasn't a fit and moved on, releasing the star in a move that opened the door to signing Alterraun Verner, a pure zone corner, coming off a big year in Tennessee.
Verner, who won't be 26 until December, should excel with the chance to read and react to quarterbacks consistently. Opposite him will be Johnthan Banks, a 2013 second-round pick, who has talent but struggled mightily in a rookie season interrupted by a MRSA scare.
Veteran Mike Jenkins was brought in from Oakland for depth while the undersized Leonard Johnson fits in nicely as a slot corner.
Veteran safety Dashon Goldson was a big disappointment after signing a five- year, $41.25 million deal last spring, and had a woeful 2013 campaign. He did suffer with a nagging foot injury for most of the season and the Bucs are hopeful for a bounce back year.
Strong safety Mark Barron looks like a star but it hasn't translated yet. A hamstring issue hurt the former Alabama stud in 2013 and getting healthy should be a key aspect toward success.
If either Goldson or Barron falter this time around Smith brought in veteran Major Wright from Chicago as a safety net.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Kicker Connor Barth missed all of last season after tearing the Achilles tendon in his right foot during a charity basketball game. The most accurate field goal kicker in franchise history, Barth has converted 84.3 percent of his attempts since joining the Bucs in 2009 and should hold off camp competition from Fordham rookie Patrick Murray.
"Fifteen years ago, maybe yes my career would have been over," Barth said. "But the technology now, and the way these doctors can do different surgeries, I honestly think it'll be stronger than it's ever been."
Punter Michael Koenen is a solid veteran who can also handle kickoff duties if that becomes an issue for Barth.
"I think it's good have a player like Mike that can do both (punt and kick)," Smith said. "It's as simple as that. It doesn't happen very often and for Mike, say your kicker goes down, who kicks in a game? You need someone. He's a valuable guy with all of the things he can do."
The ultra-quick Eric Page is trying to hold off Olympic-level sprinter Jeff Demps on kickoff returns. Page is secure but slight and has trouble breaking that first tackle, a necessity for being a gamebreaker.
COACHING: Smith is as steady as they come and he brought fellow Tampa-2 devotee and ex-Vikings coach Leslie Frazier with him to Tampa to handle the defense.
The offense is in the hands of ex-Cal coach Jeff Tedford and it will be interesting to see who he melds with a long-time NFL veteran like McCown.
THE SKINNY: If McCown can do here what he did in Chicago, the Bucs will make the playoffs. They're loaded with weapons on offense now and have the requisite speed on defense to pull off Smith's heavy zone-based scheme.
The problem is, it's hard to expect a career journeyman like McCown, who never really has a resume until last season, to hit the same notes he was playing in the Windy city for 16 games.