TAMPA, Fla. – Lovie Smith talks about making the Tampa Bay Buccaneers relevant again.
And, the third coach the struggling franchise has hired to try to end a playoff drought that's grown to six seasons doesn't think it will take nearly as long as last year's 4-12 finish might suggest.
Smith not only has a proven track record as an NFL head coach, but inherited a talented nucleus the club began accumulating under Raheem Morris and later Greg Schiano, who was fired after going 11-21 during a tumultuous two-year stint.
Players have embraced the change, welcoming Smith's calm, low-key style after feeling stifled by Schiano, the ex-Rutgers coach whose hands-on, in-your-face approach seemed more suited for colleges than the pros.
"I'm not going into meetings saying: 'Hey guys, we were 4-12 last year, we've got to get to 5-11, we've made improvement,'" said Smith, who went 81-63, won three division titles, advanced to two NFC championship games and made one Super Bowl appearance in nine seasons with the Chicago Bears from 2004-2012.
"No, you talk about winning the division, making Raymond James Stadium a place that people don't want to come and play at," he added. "It's all about winning."
Smith and new general manager Jason Licht discarded Pro Bowl cornerback Darrelle Revis and his $16 million annual salary, providing additional salary cap space to overhaul the roster in free agency. Quarterback Josh McCown, pass rusher Michael Johnson, cornerback Alterraun Verner, defensive tackle Clinton McDonald, and offensive linemen Anthony Collins and Evan Dietrich-Smith were key additions.
The team's top three draft picks — receiver Mike Evans, tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins and running back Charles Sims — also figure to get opportunities to contribute to an offense that ranked 30th in scoring and dead last in passing and total yardage in 2013.
Chicago excelled on defense under Smith, who hopes to lead the Bucs back to prominence with a version of the Cover 2 scheme Tampa Bay popularized under Tony Dungy in the late 1990s before winning the franchise's only Super Bowl championship under Jon Gruden 12 years ago.
The Bucs haven't won a playoff game since.
Smith is counting on the 35-year-old McCown, a career backup coming off his best pro season while filling in for an injured Jay Cutler, to make a difference on offense.
"He's a vet. He knows how to lead," Smith said, adding that he's confident he and Licht have assembled a roster talented enough to challenge Drew Brees, Matt Ryan and Cam Newton in the quarterback-driven NFC South.
"We feel like we have the right guys competing for certain positions," Smith said. "They're definitely ready to change the culture and become a relevant team again."
Some story lines to follow in training camp:
THE FRAZIER FACTOR: Smith hired former Minnesota coach Leslie Frazier, another one-time Dungy assistant, as defensive coordinator. The Vikings fired him after last season, and he's looking forward to working with Pro Bowl tackle Gerald McCoy, linebacker Lavonte David, safeties Dashon Goldson and Mark Barron, as well as newcomers Johnson and Verner.
TEDFORD'S OFFENSE: Ex-California coach Jeff Tedford is the offensive coordinator. He and Smith have had little to say about what to expect, other than their plans calls for a strong running game and incorporating some of the up-tempo elements of the system Tedford used at Cal.
SPEEDY DEMPS: One of the more interesting stories in training camp could be the development of Olympic sprinter Jeff Demps, a 5-foot-7, 191-pound running back who gained 14 yards on his only carry a year ago. In the past, Demps has been slow to commit to playing football full-time. Smith says the second-year pro has indicated that's no longer the case.
IF NOT MCCOWN: Mike Glennon started 13 games as a rookie a year ago, playing well enough that Smith has said he's the team's quarterback of the future. Not good enough, though, to stop the team from bringing in McCown. All involved — Smith, McCown and Glennon — feel the second-year pro will benefit from returning to the bench and watching an experienced QB run the show.
GOODBYE REVIS ISLAND: Despite the departure of Revis, the Bucs believe they have a chance to be better. "Darrelle Revis is one guy. We've got to become a team," McCoy said. "He took me underneath his wing and showed me the ropes on how to be a vet and be what people expect you to be. I hated to see him go, but this is a team. This is the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, it's not the Revises."
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