Lovie Smith spent a year away from the NFL preparing for the challenge he faces in trying to transform the struggling Tampa Bay Buccaneers into winners.
The Bucs have missed the playoffs the past six seasons. However, the former Chicago Bears coach is confident he has the team headed in the right direction after eight months of overhauling the roster and implementing other changes aimed at making the franchise relevant again.
He talks about winning games with a ball-hawking defense that not only creates opportunities for an efficient offense but scores points in bunches, too — much the way the Bucs did in the late 1990s, when Smith was an assistant in Tampa Bay under Tony Dungy.
What Smith often refers to as "Buc Ball" wasn't always pretty. Still, it was a big hit during a decade of excellence under Dungy and Jon Gruden, who led the club to its only Super Bowl title 12 years ago.
Tampa Bay, which hasn't won a postseason game since, is banking on Smith, fired in 2012 after a successful nine-year run with the Bears, to restore the glory days.
The new Bucs delivered a glimpse of what the coach envisions during the third preseason game. The defense forced three first-half turnovers, scored a touchdown and put the offense into position to score another en route to a 24-0 lead over Buffalo.
You talk about 'Buc Ball,' said Smith, who won three division titles, appeared in two NFC championship games and one Super Bowl in nine seasons in Chicago. "That's our version of 'Buc Ball' right there. ... That is the way we want to play."
The old Bucs like what they've seen, too.
"You talk about a way of consistency and how we do business. That's gotten lost over the years. What is the Buccaneer way? Now, I think you can have an answer," Hall of Fame linebacker Derrick Brooks, one of the stars of the 2002 championship team, said.
"It's not overly splashy," Brooks added, "but it's definitely been effective."
Pro Bowl tackle Gerald McCoy, linebacker Lavonte David and safeties Mark Barron and Dashon Goldson head a group of talented holdovers on defense. Smith has installed his version of the Tampa 2 scheme that the Dungy- and Gruden-led Bucs popularized in more prosperous times.
Pass rusher Michael Johnson, tackle Clinton McDonald, and cornerbacks Alterraun Verner and Mike Jenkins were added to fill openings on defense in free agency.
Meanwhile, Smith and general manager Jason Licht used the entire draft on offensive players to bolster the talent. Quarterback Josh McCown, a 35-year-old career backup signed in March, is coming off a season in which he threw for 13 touchdowns and just one interception while filling in for an injured Jay Cutler in Chicago.
McDonald signed with the Bucs after helping Seattle win last season's Super Bowl. He sees no reason why the Bucs shouldn't set their sights high, too.
"People laugh about it right now, but it's the belief you've got to have. I'm living proof of it," McDonald said. "Coming from Seattle, when I first went over there, we weren't Super Bowl ready. But the belief in it every year, and the work ethic every year, allowed us to get there."
Some things to watch as the Bucs try to end their playoff drought:
MCCOWN THE SOLUTION?: One of the people Smith huddled with during his year out of football was California coach Jeff Tedford, who he hired as his offensive coordinator. The Bucs were 30th in scoring and 32nd in passing and total offense a year ago, but expect to be better with running back Doug Martin returning from injury and first-round draft pick Mike Evans teaming with five-time 1,000-yard receiver Vincent Jackson at receiver. The big question, though, is whether McCown is the answer at quarterback.
RUNNING THE D: Leslie Frazier wasn't out of work long after being fired as Vikings coach after last season. He's the new defensive coordinator and likes the pieces the Bucs already have in place, and the prospect for building a dominant unit. "It's easy to get excited about this opportunity," he said.
LINE WOES: An overhauled offensive line features four new starters, most notably Logan Mankins, the 10-year veteran acquired Tuesday in a trade with New England. So far, the line has been slow coming together, especially at guard, where Mankins would fit right in.
RUSHING THE PASSER: The Bucs haven't had a pass rusher finish with double-digit sacks since Simeon Rice had 14 in 2005. They're counting on Johnson to change that after signing a five-year deal worth nearly $44 million in free agency. He had 11 1/2 sacks for Cincinnati two years ago, but only 3 1/2 in 2013.
REAL MCCOY: The two-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle is entering the final year of his rookie contract and expects to be even better in Smith's defense, which will utilize him much the way the Bucs used Hall of Famer Warren Sapp.
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